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The ‘Cool’ equation

23 May 2010

What is cool?  We usually recognise cool people instantly, but it’s a bit tricky to pinpoint exactly why that is – how do we define the concept of cool?  And why do we find it so appealing?

Firstly, let us list the qualities of cool:

Why is Ms Murray so cool?

  1. Quietness.  A cool person is usually not an active participant of conversations, but rather opt for sitting quiet in a corner, observing.  At most, the cool person might offer short, non-committal replies or simple forceful statements.
  2. Laid-back.  The cool person can be found in relaxed, carefree poses.  You will not find any cool people sitting attentively and overly interested.  Which neatly leads to the next item, namely..
  3. Bored.  The world seem to slightly bore the cool person, as if he/she had seen it all countless time before.  Nothing ever surprised a cool person, and very few things move them.
  4. Detached.  By deploying all of the above points, the cool person will give the impression of not really belonging to the group but rather being a bit of an outsider.
  5. Calm and determined movements.  A cool person is never seen partaking in energetic physical activities, or to use vivid gesturing.

Not even questionable facial hair will spoil the impression of cool.

Ok, so far so good.  We now have a reasonably comprehensive description of the concept of cool.  In terms of an equation it would spell:  quietness + laid-back + bored + detached + calm movements = cool.  This still looks a bit unrefined, though.  Perhaps we can reduce the equation a little by analysing the underlying causes.

So the question now is: why would the above qualities make a person appear attractive?  Why do most people want to be cool, or at least be friends with one?

Let us go through the list again, but from the view of a traditional pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer society:

  1. By being quiet a cool person will give the impression of knowledge.  It also portraits confidence, as the cool person doesn’t seem to have the need to enforce his/her views constantly.  Obviously, being knowledgeable and confident are attractive qualities, as this hints at experience and being good at surviving.
  2. The laid-back, carefree poses also hint at confidence.  You can only feel relaxed if you feel in control, and you can only feel in control by being confident in your ability in dealing with whatever the situation might throw at you.
  3. Being bored and the inability to be surprised again show that the cool person is experienced.  This again will give the impression of a person who knows how to survive in the world.  It also tells you that the cool person is experienced in human interaction and relations; not only does the cool person know how to survive, but also how to survive in a political world of backstabbing and betrayal.
  4. By being detached and conscientiously standing outside the group, the cool person reveals his/her strength.  Only a physically and emotionally strong person would have any chance of surviving alone, and this let you know that the cool person feel self-reliant.  This is naturally a very attractive quality as they show a person who know how to make do and how to handle almost any situation.
  5. Calm and determined movements, then.  This is rather interesting.  One possible interpretation could be that by using slow and determined movements, the cool person practice self-control.  A person in control of him/herself is more likely to make rational decisions than an out-of-control one.  The former is obviously more appealing person to have around in situations when you rely on each other.  Another is that calm and determined movement shows a person who is in no hurry, confident that in time they will get to where they want anyway.  Also note that in films and music videos they enhance this quality of cool by the use of slow-motion to create the concept of super-cool..

So, have we been able to reduce the equation at all?  Let’s see:  knowledge + confidence + experience + self-reliance + being in control = cool

The ultimate cool?

Ok, so the equation hasn’t been reduced just yet.  But perhaps we can combine some of the attributes?  Knowledge and experience could be argued to be the same thing.  Self-reliance could be seen as a mix of confidence and knowledge.  And feeling in control could again be seen as an expressions of confidence.

This gives us the following equation:  confidence + experience = cool.  Hey, that’s not bad!  We’ve now got a nice simple equation to explain the concept of cool.

And, if you look at the reasoning above, it would work equally well if you replace the phrase ‘cool person’ with ‘tribal chief’.  Perhaps the concept of cool is just that:  The pre-historical tribal leader, the one person we all admire and most of us want to be?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 September 2011 22:33

    Can you please print this in the form of a self-help pamphlet? It is tiresome to keep referring back to it online. Thanks.


    • 22 September 2011 23:46

      Or perhaps in form of a self-help T-shirt? Something like: “I’m quiet because I’m cool” or “You all wish you were me”?


  2. 20 February 2013 22:04

    Eddie Izzard has a great bit about how in fashion/style terms, “Cool, hip and groovy” is always dangerously close to “Looking like a dickhead” — ie. just subversive enough to seem like you don’t care what people think, but not enough to be in the “good God, what the hell are you wearing?” territory.



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