How Cool Are We?

It may not be one of the first adjectives that come to mind when describing the Granite State, but when people (or states) describe themselves as “cool,” it’s often a sign that they aren’t

Words to sum up the New Hampshire attitude would include “frugal” or “taciturn” or “stoic,” but “cool”? Well, why not?

First, you do have to ask yourself how “cool” — a word without a precise definition — became one of the most commonly used adjectives in the English language. The best definition of the word that I know is the answer given by Louis Armstrong when asked to define the kind of music he played: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

That certain “undefinability” is so much a part of the state’s psyche that, while we may have a dozen official state symbols (and nine state songs), our primary state icon is a rock formation that fell into a pile of rubble about 14 years ago. While other New England states can flaunt their Colonial minutemen, their lobsters or their Ben and Jerry’s cartons, the most famous symbol of New Hampshire is four words from a toast written in 1809.

Another avatar of coolness, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, had a complementary take. When his “Happy Days” buddy Potsie was contemplating dropping out of school, he told the Fonz that he didn’t care about learning in anatomy class, he just wanted to get a passing grade. The Fonz replied, “Hey, grades are not cool — learning is cool.”

That’s the kind of cool that New Hampshire has down cold. We’ve got one of the highest percentages of college-educated citizens in the nation, and we rate high in the number of people working in science and technology. We’re also home to one of the fastest-growing online universities in the country (SNHU), and our lifelong learning programs, like those at Granite State College, are filled with folks of all ages — increasingly with seniors who are learning mostly for personal enrichment.

If you consider some of the word’s common uses, a pattern may emerge. It often indicates a happy surprise, as in “Wow, that’s cool.” This phrase is so often spoken and heard by summer visitors that it could practically appear on our license plates. Just try visiting any one of the 82 places listed in our cover story without either hearing it or saying it yourself.

Of course, the word can also suggest a certain aloofness or detachment. Substitute “stoic” and “taciturn,” and you’ll see that this box has been checked.

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote an article titled “Toward a Universal Theory of ‘Cool,’” in which he summarized the word’s meaning as “departing from norms that we consider unnecessary, illegitimate, or repressive — but also doing so in ways that are bounded.”

In other words, you can be a contrarian (a common Yankee characteristic) without being cool. You can’t just oppose one boundary without suggesting some new, better (i.e., cooler) boundary. It’s not about knocking things down; it’s about making your own way. 

That we do things differently here is no secret. The fact can be a point of pride or dismay to residents (e.g., helmet laws, income taxes or full-day kindergarten) but it’s hard to argue with success. Our quality of life is famously high, our children are incredibly safe and our tax burden (overall) is quite low. Politicians attribute all this to something called “the New Hampshire advantage.” The reason that no one has ever really defined that term either may be simply that New Hampshire’s true advantage is we’re pretty darn cool.

Categories: Editor’s Note

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