Being Aloof: Smugness, or Judicious Propriety?

The definition of ‘aloof’ is not in question here, for it has many meanings, to wit, “distant, detached, unfriendly, anti-social, unsociable, remote, unapproachable, formal, stiff, withdrawn, reserved, unforthcoming, uncommunicative, unsympathetic, standoffish” (Oxford Canadian Thesaurus). So take your pick. Generally it connotes being ‘cool and distant’, somewhat like several of the main characters in Downton Abbey.

To be considered ‘smug’ (superior, pleased with oneself, self-congratulatory), an aloof person usually doesn’t have to do much except do it while acting cool and distant. We often aren’t attracted to smug and aloof people because we have a) silent envy or jealousy, b) a learned dislike for perceived pretense of all kinds, or c) a latent fear of iconic authority figures.

Are aloof people ‘bad’ people? Is their character morally suspect? Are they constantly out of touch with reality?

Are they psychologically damaged somehow because of their apparent arrogance and social separation? or vice versa?

Or, do they deserve their stance? Is their aloofness necessary in order to do what they do? Is aloofness therefore a protection device for persons with very different agendas in life from ours? Is it that they are wise and correct in being that way, for reasons that escape the common folk but nonetheless make society a better place?

Each of us contains a mental ‘deference hierarchy’ of values, whether we acknowledge it daily or not. Things are ordered vertically in our heads according to ‘base’ and ‘virtuous’ (and all places in between) categories. We like Pomeranians better than Great Danes; we like Brunettes better than Blondes; we prefer men with abs over portly ones; Greens over New Democrats; eggs and bacon better than porridge; flying over driving; and the Caribbean over Greenland. The comparisons are endless. Rich and influential people we often assume, without meeting them, that they have ‘aloofness’, and perhaps smugness as well, but poor people at the other extreme of our hierarchy are assumed to be either victims or causes of their socio-economic position. It’s OK for aloof people to be aloof, and maybe smug too, because they have somehow ‘earned it’, or use it wisely, and their propriety is a model for the rest of us.

Being aloof can transcend social class sometimes when we act the part, as in a play or movie or TV show. In that sense, we can all be aloof from time to time, at home or at parties. Simulating the ‘other’ for a while can be enjoyable then, even though we know it is momentary from our true condition.

Do aloof people get a bad rap? Can we say that one can earn aloofness by trying really hard in life and moving up the socioeconomic scale and earning it?  Or is aloofness something not to be strived for, and be avoided?

Certain occupations force individuals to become aloof, e.g., movie stars, writers, teachers, physicians, lawyers, psychiatrists, etc., because closeness to their audiences/clients/patients compromises their privacy and/or their integrity and objectivity. As much as a male Grade 2 teacher wants to hug and thereby comfort his little female student crying from a playground bruise – he can’t. He must remain aloof from touching this little girl in any way due to liability issues or worse. Similarly, a writer cannot mention a real person’s name in his/her book without informed consent. And writers need to be alone much of the time to spark creativity.

Conceit can foster aloofness, usually unearned. A person can be aloof in one situation but not in another, such as a local surgeon who escapes to a remote holiday island to freely practice his and his wife’s clandestine nudist lifestyle. A movie star is ‘normal’ at the Oscars among his/her peers, but lives in geographic isolation from admirers (and detractors). So aloofness can be not only a panache from being socialized within a particular family but also a ‘face mask’ that can be put on and taken off as time, place and circumstances require. With education and earned wealth can come physical or psychological aloofness, sometimes out of necessity. Not all people who are aloof are smug. Not all smug people are aloof.

Each of us has been, or will be, aloof from others at some time in our lives, and it just might be compulsory out of judicious propriety, well within the rules of accepted behaviour.

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