John Scalzi recently wrote an interesting explanation of what he sees as the difference between being “cool” and not, which I think is worth a read. While it’s possible to pick nits or disagree with his definitions, I’m not here to do that; language is descriptive, not prescriptive. Instead, I wanted to talk about how not cool I am (on his definitions) and what that means for me.
Scalzi defines “cool”ness as being effectively self-contained in your personhood, which he distinguishes from confidence by talking about how much we care about what other people think of us. I believe this effectively mirrors my discussion of confidence vs security which I included as part of my synthesis from Principle-Centered Leadership. On this definition of coolness, I (like Scalzi himself) am very, deeply, uncool. I care very much what other people think of me, and I lack much of that self-anchored security necessary for personal stability. I am, fundamentally, afraid of the world where somebody doesn’t like me and so I do my best to be likeable, to be malleable and pleasant and nice.
This is not, I think a particularly uncommon way to be; most people like to be liked, because most people need to be needed. Certainly it is a matter of degree, and not black and white, and there must be at least a little of this in all of us. What this means for me though (and presumably for other people in whom this trait is particularly strong) is that I become very passive and indirectly indecisive. If you ask me where I’d like to go for dinner, I will likely waffle, hedge, hem and haw. To me internally, it feels like I legitimately have no preference, I’ll eat whatever. There is a certain extent to which this is true as I am not a picky eater, but there is also a certain extent to which this indecision is a reflection of my passive uncoolness.
As a matter of uncoolness, my indecisiveness is an active likeableness-generating mechanism. If I don’t have a strong preference, then whoever is asking the question will be more likely to have their preferences met. When I then agree and happily go along with their request, that builds rapport between us and elevates their mood. If instead I were to express my own preference, that risks generating conflict, which automatically feels threatening.
Aspects of Conflict
It is easy to read into this that I don’t feel comfortable dealing with conflict, and there is a certain degree to which this is true, but it is hardly a blanket rule. In purely technical conversations I am happy and comfortable being firm in my convictions and arguing a point, both because the process is heavily factual/empirical, and because the environment for these debates is usually one of mutual collaborative respect. We may disagree, but we both acknowledge that we’re working toward the same goal and simply need to figure out exactly what trade-offs allow us to get there most effectively.
Even on deeper, more personal topics like religion I will prefer conflict to completely reversing my values. If you push me, I will admit to being an atheist and explain my rationale behind that even to a strongly religious audience; I won’t flat-out-lie. But I am much more likely to avoid the topic, or lie by omission. Since I grew up as a fairly religiously aware child, it’s easy for me to… “drop hints” which socially signal a certain affiliation, without ever actually saying anything untrue. As a child who also grew up reading a great deal of fantasy literature, you can bet that learned a lot of tricks from Robert Jordan’s Aes Sedai.
Practically, this has a couple of effects. I get along with almost everybody, but I make a poor leader except in purely technical situations with clear answers. I can be indecisive and prone to waffling. Fundamentally, I am insecure and lack self-trust. I am afraid of being in a state of deep interpersonal conflict.
Fear of Conflict
This fear of conflict does not feel unnatural to me, though clearly it is not universally shared. Surely conflict is not pleasant for everyone, but active fear is a different matter. I am certainly capable of justifying this fear in practical terms, but I am not convinced that these justifications end up being legitimate. Conflict is both fundamentally inevitable in some situations and not intrinsically immoral or problematic. The key is how we resolve conflict, which I suppose explains my comfort with technical conflict: I have a clear script for resolving it.
As I have already mentioned though, I tend to avoid more interpersonal conflict, resulting in a situation where I’m not as good at resolving it simply because it’s a skill I don’t practice. The caveat to this is that I believe I am an excellent mediator, since my general likeability and rationalist outlook make me very good at acting as a trusted, neutral third-party. Unfortunately for me those skills do not naturally translate to the case where I have chips in the game.
I do not believe it is fundamentally a bad thing to want to avoid conflict, but I do believe it is a bad thing to not be able to resolve conflict when it arises, and I definitely wish that I was more willing to stand up for myself and accept the resulting conflict in some situations. It is a skill I’m looking to build, but I plan to start small.
Hopefully you agree.