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many meanings, to wit, “distant, detached, unfriendly, anti-social, unsociable, remote, unapproachable, formal, stiff, withdrawn, reserved, unforthcoming, uncommunicative, unsympathetic, standoffish” (Oxford Canadian Thesaurus).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.


Personal Disclosure and Getting Hired

So, how much do you disclose about yourself in your resume? in your interview? How much do you disclose online in social media, knowing it’s fodder for HR investigators? Is the amount of disclosure a function of a) age, 2) social status, 3) wealth, 4) personal morality, 5) self-concept, 6) fear of repercussions?

You may be an accountant, but no one knows you ride in a motorcycle club. You may be a chef, but no one knows about the fact that you live and sleep with two women. You may be a personal support worker who has only one kidney. Or, you may be a corporate vice-president who escapes to that Caribbean resort so you can live nude for 3 weeks.

Our culture (Canada-US-Europe) tolerates a great deal of variance in personal interests, some of which are close to being illegal or immoral, e.g., being nude on your own property as long as you can’t be seen by the public. Note: if the public trespasses in order to see you, they are committing the crime, not you (at least in Canada, where it is even legal for women to be topless in public as long as it is not in an obviously “sexual” way). Betting on cock-fights is illegal; but betting on racing pigeons is not. And having a personal interest in such things as Gay Pride parades, Swedish massage, smoking pot, Crete architecture, Steven King novels, space colonization, bear hunting, crotchless underwear (or no underwear), bee-keeping, professional ethics, British Royalty, stamp-collecting, bungie-jumping, and making your own beer – all may not be things people would disclose to a prospective employer, or even a current employer. Some things are better left not disclosed, or disclosed later on, when a level of trust and camaraderie has been established.

So, the question becomes “What is the degree of rapport in terms of shared personal information I am willing to create with persons in my workplace?” “What, if any, are the risks?”

As we age, we tend to drift away from concerns about image protection, and more towards nurturing personal relationships with family and friends. Unless there is a strict dress code, for example, persons in their 60s are much more willing to wear out of date fashions. Balancing one’s private life with workplace life, can indeed be tricky. We have all been to a colleague’s house-party at some time or other, and have witnessed very different behaviours or artifacts that we would not otherwise associate with that person. People come away saying “Holy crap, did you know that about Ed and Nancy?”

We tend less to worry about revelations of self as we age. An 80 year-old will do, or tell you, anything you want to know, but he/she does not usually have an employer to worry about. The trade-off between concept of self and employer’s expectations can be a tough road to hoe for some people. Self-employed persons have less concerns, as their ‘products’ are not people, and their personal reputations don’t suffer so much with disclosure. And we censure the lower-class who have ‘weird’ hobbies or personal lives, but we revere the wealthy or famous, and forgive them their ‘weirdness’. We may even silently envy their off-beat eccentricities.

Being yourself sometimes has a price-tag, especially in the workplace. Compromise is the name of the game if you have no alternatives to making your living from your avocations. But fulfillment is best when our hobbies can make us money, and our lifestyles are tolerated or enjoyed by friends.


Toenails: Friend or Foe?

No one writes about toenails. Except me.

Toenails live down there somewhere, oblivious to the world above them. For some unknown reason they exist, often to give us distraction or pain because they grow. And they require regular cleaning and trimming. I have fought many battles with my toenails, but am still the victor. So far.

So what do they do for us?

Well, apparently, they are vestigial claws, used for digging or scratching by our far distant ancestors of the Homo Erectus variety. As we walk barefoot, they remind us as claws, where we have been with each step. The longer they are, the more attention they/we get, especially on public sandy beaches. Most of the time the claw function is sub-conscious and irrelevant. I have yet to see someone dig a hole with their toes, although in theory it is possible. And no one has stopped me and said something like “Your toenails are too short for clawing.”

They are status beacons. Dirty, knurled, ingrown toenails say a lot about their owner since their neglect predicts other body parts will be neglected too, i.e., hair, fingernails, teeth, etc. Really spiffy clean and manicured toenails are one important indicator then, of perhaps traits beyond hygiene, like personality. Clean toenails, well-managed person.

And they can be painted, according for some people an opportunity to display not only status but also its corollary, ‘belonging-ness’. Painted toenails signal fashion conformity or self-expressionism others also enjoy. Of course, the more people adopt a fashion the more it becomes the norm, so there is a time limit on self-expression of toenails as a personal statement. Kind of like the claim that “If we all were nude, no one would be nude.”

Toenails cost money to care for. Or they can. Clippers aren’t cheap any more. And manicures are getting very expensive. Bandages too, for those persons who happen to rip a toenail (only) from slipping while cutting the lawn barefoot. Or walking in the bush barefoot (been there).

Toenails follow us wherever we go, but are mostly an after-thought in everyday life. More likely, they remind us, rather than we remind them, they need attention. That ‘new shoe’ test is one moment in toenail time where they are victorious. Another may be while we are in bed, alone or otherwise, against the sheets or another person’s leg. Uncut toenails can be our downfall, in moments of intimacy, or while wearing open-toed sandals at a pool-side Bar-B-Q.

So where are we….do we need them? Probably not. Do they need us? Probably not. Are we stuck with them? Probably for the next 2-3 million years. They are just another in a list of self-discipline devices Mother Nature has loaded us up with, like hair and fingernails and other body parts that need regular attention. Just have to live with them, and use them to our advantage – for public status purposes, and maybe one day while in the garden when no one is looking – for digging holes.

Mumble your way to success!


The expression “Bullshit baffles brains!” comes to mind when I think about how some people need to write. James Boren (1972) , in his not-so-satirical book When in Doubt, Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook, states:

“In any well-organized bureaucracy, the theme of communication is less important than the artistry with which words, charts, and other tools of communication are used. Rhetorical artistry reigns supreme in the substantive aesthetics of the art. Bureaucratic experience reflects that junior executives or beginning bureaucrats must learn to use the qualifying abstractions that spell the difference between routine presentations and neutral masterpieces.” (p.7)

So, an example of how aspiring corporate ladder-climbers should change their ways, is the following:

Instead of saying “I doubt that it will work”, the aspirant should say: “Given my present vantage point, it would appear that there are questionable, or at best, undemonstrable elements that might negatively affect the ultimate implementation of the integrated program.” This extended version is bound to baffle and impress those that need to read or hear it. Such expeditions into one’s Thesaurus can only guarantee promotability. Middle managers especially, would gain from having these added skills of confounding and flabbergasting.

Boren’s method is simple. From his large lists of baffling buzz words (and there are 270 of them!) such as “regressive”, “supervisory”, “relationship”, “restructured”, “fractional”, “conglomerate”, “facilitative”, one can easily write an imposing and profound inter-departmental memo such as “It has come to my attention that the regressive supervisory methods that once formed an effective relationship among staff, have been restructured in fractional ways to form an unwieldly conglomerate not more facilitative.” This is literally, amazing. Junior staff scratch their heads in outward admiration for such eloquence (but perhaps in truth, with inward bewilderment), and all share it openly as such, at the water-fountain. “Gosh, Bill writes well!”

Mumbling like this has its place, especially in government offices wherein fuzziness is not only a virtue but a means of protection from those who just want the facts. Or the buck to stop somewhere. These apprenticeship steps to political appointments at higher levels in the corporation, or even (God forbid) at the level of holding a public office, e.g., MP, MPP, make all voters happier through our admiration for eloquence (not for straight shooting) when bureaucrats are interviewed, or during the election process, respectively.

We have to blame the British upper-classes of course, for having developed the art of mumbling and circumlocution, to the degree it now possesses. After all, many British authors have included figures in their stories that portray this penchant for eloquent mumbling (Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Agatha Christie). Yet, my detractors may say that I have missed the mark, that this ‘art form’ is really conducive to a high IQ because of having gained a much widened vocabulary, or that success in life depends heavily on such an impressive degree of refinement. I suspect there needs to be a balance between mumbling for status sake, mumbling to exercise unused words, and straight talk. I will leave you the reader, to ponder Fielding’s comment from The History of Tom Jones, in which he says:

“Again, there is another form of knowledge, beyond the power of learning to bestow, and this is to be had by conversation. So necessary is this to the understanding the characters of men, that none are more ignorant of them than those learned pedants whose lives have been entirely consumed in colleges and among books; for however exquisitely human nature may have been described by writers, the true practical system can be learnt only in the world.”

Both “mumbling” and conciseness, have their place.