Do you consider yourself as cool as James Dean, Miles Davis, Marlon Brando, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs? Were you drawn to the character played by Paul Newman in the movie Cool Hand Luke? Are today’s cool people considered to be Barack Obama, Daniel Craig, Kanye, Kim Kardashian?

Do you laugh at what was considered cool in the l970’s or l980’s, while forgetting that the same thing will happen to today’s cool? Or is there a common element running through all times? Recent research points to a shift in popular views of what is cool. 

If something or someone is cool, it is considered to be an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance or style. Because of it’s subjective nature, no single definition does it justice. It is often associated with composure and self-control, and often used as an expression of admiration or approval. The concept of cool transcends cultures an countries and can be found in many references over the centuries in Africa and Asia, and Europe.

Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political prisoners. And now we have performing artists adopting the word cool into their names—L.L. Cool, Coolio, and D.J. Cool to name just a few. In an article in Fast Company magazine, Lucas Conley describes how the word cool has maintained its popularity since the l950’s while words such as “hip,” “boss,” and “groovy,” have lost their appeal.

According to Lewis MacAdams, author of Birth of Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde, cool is a “way of life,” whereas Dick Pountain and David Robbins, in their book, Cool Rules, defined cool as an attitude. They argue that cool has a clear connection to Black Americans and the ancient West African cultures of Yoruba and Ibo in the 15th century, with a focus on gentleness of character, the ability to avoid fights and disputes, as well as having generosity and grace. The authors contend that coolness evolved from an original African virtue to passive resistance through shared attitude and lifestyle.

In recent times, the idea of cool has been exploited by biasness through marketing and advertising of products. The November 2001 issue of Wired Magazine ran a special advertising section entitled “The Phenomenon of Cool,” The piece seemed to imply a change of definition of cool from people and behavior to material possessions such as technological devices and clothing. Today, tech writes in various magazines and blogs describes gadgets and websites as cool, watering down our original notion. And coolness has been related to our use of language. Marshall McLuhan said, “we entered the cool era when the medium becomes the message.”

Thorstein Botz-Bornstein, writing in Philosophy Now magazine, suggests the following things are no longer cool:

  • Linear structures or ideas
  • The search and use of power for its own sake or personal gain
  • Doing whatever it takes to win
  • Being a CEO
  • Blind obedience to rules and standards
  • Being overly eccentric
  • Following the crowd

Do rebelliousness, emotional control and thrill seeking define cool? This is a question that University of Rochester Medical Center psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod and his colleagues asked in their studies of what constituted, cool, recently published in the Journal of Individual Differences. Dar-Nimrod reports that his study defines cool, based several studies of more than 1,000 people in social and relationship terms: “The main thing is :Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.” A significant number of participants in the study used adjectives that focused on positive socially desirable traits—friendliness, competence, and attractiveness. The researchers found that while participants in the study still appreciated the traditional elements of cool such as rebelliousness and detachment, these were not as important as traits such as friendliness and warmth.

So here’s your chance to look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Am I cool?” How will you define it?

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