Defining "Cool"

Call up the middle school version of yourself: someone just defined the word “cool,” and it is no longer dependent on which type of Lunchables your mom packs. Thanks to a new paper published in The Journal of Consumer Research that managed to do what had previously been viewed as impossible, there is now a reasonable explanation for why you were not invited to sit at the popular kids’ table at lunch…sort of.

‘Coolness’ has long been difficult to define for several reasons, one being that ‘cool’ is a socially constructed label based entirely on people’s perceptions. The issue is that ‘cool’ is completely subjective and dynamic, and is often only revealed through actions and preferences. What is considered cool today may not be considered so tomorrow.

Cool has been defined as “an appropriate deviation from the norm”, or “the extent to which one shows or does not show autonomy.” When it comes down to it, ‘cool’ implies a rebellious nature that falls within reason. Championing individualism and non-conformity has long been an effective method to sell ‘cool’ products. This helps explain the success of commercials for Dos Equis, Harley Davidson and Apple, whose marketing techniques attempt to set their products apart from others in the same genre.

In defining ‘cool’, the extent of deviation while still remaining within the realm of appropriateness is just as important. Consider the following two scenarios: Pope Francis taking selfies? Cool. Taking selfies at funerals? Not cool. When considering that "cool means departing from norms that we consider unnecessary, illegitimate or repressive—but also doing so in ways that are bounded,” we see that there is a huge difference between an appropriate and an inappropriate deviation from the norm for the sake of ‘cool.’

The first case describes an unexpected occurrence that people see as ‘cool’ because it deviates from the expected norm, while still remaining within certain bounds. After all, it’s not every day the Pope takes a selfie with the commoners. The second scenario describes a deviation from the norm that most people would find insensitive and pointless. Thus, something is only ‘cool’ if it deviates from a norm that is considered repressive, unnecessary or illegitimate.

People like James Dean, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Justin Bieber are just a handful of people who meet the standard of what it takes to be cool; they are unique individuals who defy the norm. Yet, it’s exactly their individuality and uniqueness—the stuff that makes them ‘cool’—that makes it so difficult to create a universal standard for what it means to possess the quality. Until then, keep striving to be Beyoncé. That’s the best anyone can do.