What Makes a Person “Cool”? (Being Subtle, Aware of Social Cues, and Having Something Exclusive)

I asked dozens of people in real life and on facebook in order to find the answer.

There are some things in life we recognize and encounter everyday, yet we don’t understand them.  For example, questions I constantly ask myself as I am writing each day are “is this funny?” and more importantly “is this interesting?” Both humor and being able to captivate a person’s attention are not really cut-and-dry, black-and-white issues, though I am definitely a cut-and-dry, black-and-white person.  It takes being very observant of social cues and even pop culture, at least in my experience, to make it work.  The difficulty and creativity in the search to be both funny and interesting is that both of those things are abstract, moving targets.

I am so overaware (it’s a made-up word but if I keep using it I think I can get it to catch on) and intrigued by marketing tools and methods.  For example, from now on, anytime you see an ad for a clock (not digital) or even just a new clock for sale in a store, you will be amazed at how many of the clocks show “10:10” as the time.  My guess is that “10:10” easily shows both arms of the clock and also it’s a time that many people are awake for both times each day, both morning and night.

Another interesting observation is how many African-American models wear purple in magazine ads and commercials on TV.  From JC Penny catalogs to The Princess and the Frog, purple is present.  Notice how few people of all other races were purple in ads.  I’m sure it’s because the color purple compliments darker skin tones much better than it does for lighter ones, and because purple is a color of royalty, which is a common theme in African-American culture- like the way bishops are often common in African-American churches.  And it may be stretching this concept, but the Disney movie The Lion King takes place in Africa, and as the title explains, it is a movie about a kingdom, even though it’s about animals instead of humans.

So keeping all these things in mind, I started thinking about an important and invisible factor in selling a product: being cool.  Apple computers are definitely cool, as is Steve Jobs who started and runs the company.  Is it because of those TV ads starring Justin Long, portraying PC’s as nerdy and Mac’s as hip?  I don’t think so.  Those ads just cleverly symbolized what many clued-in consumers were already aware of: Mac’s are cooler than PC’s.

Apple has always made their own rules, not being limited to the guidelines and expectations of other computer programs or even customers.  But they get away with it because Apple basically writes The Book of Cool when it comes to media technology: User-friendly computers that don’t really get viruses, iPods, iPhones, and iPads, all of which use a minimal number of buttons, and are so cool they don’t easily interact with other Apple products.

This being said, “coolness” is important in selling a product.  And that’s why marketing departments exist- to try and figure out, or at least convince people what is cool, so the product can be sold.  But the art of being cool doesn’t just apply to big companies and marketing teams, it also matters to us as individuals.  People are often drawn to other people who they think are cool; therefore being cool yourself may in turn attract other cool people.  I mean, some people are fine with regularly attending Star Wars conventions or sharing a house with 8 cats all named after cupcake flavors.  But just as that “uncool” example shows, even if we truly don’t care what other people think about us, being cool is definitely better than being uncool, if given the choice.

So what makes a person “cool”?  I’ve asked dozens of people both in real life and on facebook to find out the answer.  There were mainly just a few different answers, some being gender specific, some not:  Some males answered “money and material possessions” while some females answered “appearance and clothing”.  But the most reoccurring answer I received was “being confident to the point that the person truly doesn’t care about what other people think or say about them”.  Another similar answer that resonated well with me was “a cool person has something you don’t, even if it’s just confidence”.

Interestingly, the age of the people I asked made no difference to the kind of answer I got.  Not only do older people think that “confidence” defines being cool, but I also realized that being young isn’t a requirement in order to be cool.  I can think of three musicians who I’ve listened to my entire life who are still making music and for whom I’m still buying their albums and happen to all be currently right around 60 years old: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Phil Collins. Age has nothing to do with being cool.  If anything, being young is a major disadvantage in being cool, since life experience is lacking.  Most teenagers only think they know what is cool, but many of them are trying so hard to be cool that they are not- which brings me to the first Rule of Being Cool.

The Rules of Being Cool

1) If you realize or acknowledge that you are cool, you either never were cool or are now no longer cool. Like John Mayer.  I will always love his music, but I refuse to think he’s cool anymore.  By the time he publicly started dating celebrities then disrespecting them later in magazines while making an arse of himself with prideful comments and talking about how much money he makes, it became official: John Mayer is aware that he’s cool, which officially disqualifies him for being cool.  I can’t totally discredit the guy, after all, he did pen the song “83” (I’ve been obsessed with the year 1983, since 1995) and it was one of his concerts that transformed a friendship into a dating relationship into a marriage into a family (the first date my wife and I went on was a John Mayer concert).  But John Mayer is officially disqualified from being cool.

2) You must be aware of social cues, but not become ruled by the expectations of other people. Obviously if a person doesn’t care whatsoever what people think, he could be rude, selfish, and only shower once a week.  But it takes more than not caring what people think and participating in personal hygiene, it takes being aware of the social expectations that actually matter: Like being friendly, positive, and simply passionate about things that are important, while not being self-centered, vain, or overly aggressive. Why?  Because a person who has these attributes I just listed in italics is a confident person.  When I meet a person who is constantly being negative and is generally condescending to others, I see a person who is unhappy, unfulfilled and desperate to find confidence; needless to say, that’s not a cool person.

3) You must have something that others inspire to have. Whether it’s wit, aggressiveness, style, a high income level, or personal character, just to name a few examples, we use other people as models for our lives.  Yes, being cool depends on who you ask, since it’s largely based on perception.  Yet still, confidence can always be found as the foundation of coolness.

And that’s it.  That’s how I define what makes a person cool.  From Zack Morris in the fictional world, to my own family and friends in the real world, I am blessed to know cool people.  Just as iron sharpens iron, so do cool people enhance each other’s coolness. Therefore, be cool to one another.

Unnecessary Bonus…

Ethnic Backgrounds of Celebrities Mentioned in This Post:

Steve Jobs (half Syrian, half English)

Justin Long (half Polish, Sicilian, English)

Phil Collins (English, Irish)

Bruce Springsteen (50% Italian, 37% Irish, 13% Dutch)

Tom Petty (English, 1/4 Native American Indian)

Henry Winkler as “The Fonz” (Jewish)

John Mayer (half Jewish, half German)

Mark-Paul Gosselaar (half Indonesian, half Dutch)