Travis Schermer realizes that sometimes acting cool can be a way to assert control—or a way to hide how out of control you feel
It was the spring of 2011 and I traveled to Madrid. It was my first time traveling abroad by myself and I had no particular plans, save for meeting a friend 24 hours after my arrival. The night before my departure I made reservations at a hotel, thinking it would give me some structure until I met my companion. However, I made no effort to figure out the mass transit system prior to my arrival in Spain; a fact that I did not fully consider until the plane’s wheels hit the runway.
By the time I made my way through airport security and out onto the street I was close to a full panic. I had not spoken Spanish since high school and I had very little idea about where I was going, let alone how I was going to get there. Due to my poor planning, the situation seemed beyond my skill set, and therefore my control. I needed help.
However, rather than reaching out and asking for assistance, I tried to act cool.
I plopped down onto a bench outside the terminal, dropped my bag next to me, and stretched out in the sun. I thought I was the picture of a collected international traveler, as if I did this all the time and knew exactly what I was doing. I sat there and casually watched what was going on around me; all the while my internal dialogue was frantically trying to concoct a plan to get to the hotel. My cool composure served as a mask for my feelings of vulnerability from not being in control.
I spied the bus from my perch upon the bench and decided that was the best way to travel given my limited spending money. I watched to see first where and then how people caught the bus. Did they pay when they got on? Were there tokens I needed to buy first? Where was the map? There were lots of questions that I needed answered and I did not ask anyone for help. Instead, I sat for two hours just observing, learning, and most importantly, maintaining my cool presentation.
Madrid is not the only example in my life where I have used acting cool as a way to maintain an image of control. Sometimes it happens when I ride the bus here in my adopted city. I’ll board a foreign bus (i.e., a line that I’m not very familiar with, but have a vague sense of where it goes) and when it takes an odd turn, I freak out. I lose it inside, but I maintain a cool exterior, as if to say, “Oh, I know where this bus goes—I ride it all the time.” On a number of occasions I have ended up on the far side of the city because I did not want to appear to the bus driver and passengers like I wasn’t in control. I played it cool instead—and continued playing it cool while walking several miles back to my destination.
It seems silly to me that I would get caught up in thinking and acting like I have to be in total control of what’s going on around me. However, my fear of being vulnerable and admitting that I am out of control is sometimes overwhelming to my cognitive processes. Even while I write this I worry that male readers will judge me poorly for not being a better planner in Madrid or not knowing where the bus line goes. I also worry that they will think that I shouldn’t hide my lack of control behind acting cool—I should actually be in control and be cool. Therein is the problem; my perception that other men will negatively evaluate me.
I am aware that I would not think poorly of another man who asks for help upon landing in a foreign country. Similarly, I would not degrade him for asking the bus driver where the bus goes or asking how to get to where he is headed. Unfortunately, the shame of being vulnerable of being labeled as “not enough,” strikes fear into my heart and limits how I express myself. Playing it cool has been my default mode so as to save face and retain the appearance of control. Sadly, the truth is that I am not cool. Instead, I am fearful of being vulnerable, which is very uncool in my mind.
It is easier to act cool than to be vulnerable by admitting to not knowing and to not being in control. This mask of cool is inauthentic, which does not allow for a true expression of oneself. All of this can lead to a feeling of isolation and a sense of being alone in the fear. However, I am not alone in my fear. My fear is shared by many men. It comes up when faced with something they do not know; be that in the classroom, the workplace, or out in the street. I am working on owning that fear and invite others to own and share their own.
I wish I could end this blog with a hopeful anecdote about how I have learned to relinquish control and no longer try to act cool. Regrettably, that’s not the case. I still feel uncomfortable when I try to act in opposition to the feeling like I need to be in control. I still put up the cool façade to hide my feelings of vulnerability. However, I am taking off that mask by writing this today and I took it off yesterday when I asked the bus driver “Hey, where does this bus go?” It’s not great, but it’s a start for now.
Photo: net_efekt / flickr