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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Terminal Cool

Terminal Cool

Cool-worry is at the root of the immature American character. The cardinal American vice and the underlying central American cultural 'export' is the concept of cool.

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I think there is some irony: a country almost obsessively caught up in the iconic Individual at the same time filled with cool-conformers. "Cool" should be defined as emotionally distanced and reserved. This distance leads to the iconic Outsider, literally too cool for the scene. The Outsider, too strong, individualistic, or alienated, is also a romanticized figure. I don't want to go into all the connotations of cool in the current social sense. You get it.

The Outsider also has perspective; is therefore a critic, an observer, a rebel, etc. This seems to fit within the icon of the Individual.

Obviously in practice, cool is actually conformity. The modern sensibility of cool involves acceptability or popularity. YET, it keeps the rejectionist attitude toward square culture, especially secondary age education, untrendy clothing or speech; perhaps, at a later stage, even work responsibility and "the man."

During intercultural contact I've always observed in many Americans a real undercurrent of insecurity: I attribute this to the perhaps unconscious but ingrained social value to appear cool. When I was a student abroad years ago I met in Germany, Holland, and Ireland many other American students, and observed many meetings as well. Very often, there was a sullen aspect to the encounter. I remember hearing an encounter between two college students who discovered each other in Berlin in November of 1989, during the fall of the Wall. I cringed at how many times the two had to say "dude" and "man" to each other, words almost used as weapons.

There was an awful deadness to their personalities. Both students seemed to be the only American in their respective groups. The encounter was ruining each one's individual cache. Americans are not citizens of the world usually, and partly I felt like each student in the above example was upset that their personal cool experience was being invaded by another American. They suddenly racheted up the cool quotient like duelists. Exactly at that moment they became uniteresting.

Coolness is itself immature, and perhaps these students were just that: callow. However, if you've been abroad at all you must get the sense of a refreshing social openness that exists at least at times between people who are not primarily concerned with stifling themselves with cool-worry. Take for example, Irish verbal acuity and joy of wit. I've spoken about other cultural reasons for this trait (post-colonial issues, irony), but consider that Americans may not be verbally acute because it is uncool to be so. Like, um, you know?

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