The Culture of Chill: A Dialogue

A few weeks ago, Natalie Bergner and I (John Foley), both in our final weeks as summer interns at Ma’yan, were having a casual conversation about the implications of the word “chill.” That discussion evolved into a larger one about politics, sexism and the dynamics of feminism in youth culture. What follows is a conversation in which we examine “chill culture.” While it was difficult to come to a consensus on the word and its implications, we hope that our dialogue will spark others to come to their own conclusions about how the word is and should be used. 

Natalie: Let’s each define chill.

John: Without looking at the dictionary, I would say chill is the idea of being non-combative and not very decisive or emotional.

N: I would define a chill person as someone who “goes with the flow,” who doesn’t assert his/her opinions in an aggressive manner, someone who is laid back; a girl who can easily hang out with guys.

J: Definitely. For women specifically, I think being compatible with a group of guys is a huge component of being chill. Although I’m not sure that there are any qualities that I would assign to being able to hang out with a group of guys. But, almost every girl I’ve known who has been labeled a “chiller,” has been able to hang out primarily with guys.

N: According to the chill is: 

1) A moderate but penetrating coldness, or

1) A checking or dampening of enthusiasm, spirit, or joy

2) A sudden numbing fear or dread

In the 1980s and 1990s, chill gained currency as a slang term meaning “to relax, calm down.”

The second definition is interesting. If you think about it, a chill person is someone who “dampens” his/her spirits to seem laid-back.

J: Do you think there is an anti-intellectual component to chill? Is there a notion that girls in particular need to compromise their intellect?

N: I don’t think it has to do with compromising your intellect. I think you compromise aggressively asserting your opinions. If you are really passionate about politics let’s say, you are going to stay more “level-headed” when discussing those issues so that you don’t appear to be hysterical or impassioned.

J: So quieting your emotions but not your intellect.

N: How do we feel about Urban Dictionary’s definition of chill?

That great girl who can just chill and be ‘one of the guys.’ She’s into sports, beer, action flicks and doesn’t give a damn what others think. However, unlike the tomboy, she has her gang of girl mates who she shops with and does girly stuff. When attractive, this girl is mysterious and elusive. Acts aloof and gives off the ‘cool girl’ aura, like she’s very aware of both guys’ and girls’ worlds.

J: [laughs] that’s a hilarious non-existent archetype.

N: I don’t think it’s true. Chill girls don’t act chill around guys and then adopt a “girly” personality around their girlfriends. They just find other girls who are chill like them.

J: Totally. Or they don’t have a girl-gang.

N: Is there a difference between being a “chill-girl” and a “guy’s-girl?”

J: I think there is a resemblance between the two.  When did you start using the word “chill?”

N: I noticed myself using it two years ago when I got to college. Girls who weren’t dramatic and sensitive were chill. I noticed myself categorizing who I thought was chill as someone I wanted to be friends with. Looking back, I think it was discriminatory and sexist. Sexist because I was categorizing who acts more like a “guy” and who acts more like a stereotypical “girl.”

J: For me, I noticed using the word towards the end of high school when I started hanging out with more straight boys. One boy in particular would label girls as either “chill” or “hype.” Usually chill girls were the girls guys were friends with but wouldn’t necessarily date. I think those girls were inadvertent examples of feminists because they weren’t the girls overtly fighting for boy’s attention.

N: Do you think we apply the term to girls more than guys?

J: Definitely.

N: Why?

J: Contextually I think the assumption is that more boys are chill and that girls by nature aren’t as chill.

N: I remember you saying a week ago that in the gay community if you are labeled chill it means that you are able to easily hangout with straight men.

J: I think that’s true. There is a relationship between “chillness” and masculinity in the gay community. You’re ability as a gay man to hang out with straight men is based on your ability to not act effeminate, because then you make yourself the “other.”

N: So if you’re too flamboyant you aren’t considered chill?

J: Right. If you can’t embed yourself in “straight-male culture” you aren’t as chill. If you are only associating with “chill” people, are your relationships not as deep?

N: I guess I have friends you might categorize as “chill.” But my relationships with them aren’t so laid-back that we don’t have differences and voice our opinions. I think there is a fine-line between being chill to the point of passivity and being chill but still asserting yourself in a situation in which you don’t share the same beliefs as someone else.

J: To follow up, do you see “chillness” as a prerequisite for a drama-free friendship?

N: I think part of a friendship is having an honest connection with someone. Meaning, I can state my beliefs and opinions which may or may not correspond exactly with my friends’ but we can have conversations about our differences without creating a twisted dramatic saga. I guess part of being chill is having candid conversations where both parties listen to each other but are able to remain collected. Do you agree?

J: It’s interesting. When we had this initial conversation about the culture of chill, we agreed that it was a limiting categorization. But now we are taking a second walk with it. If you look at it one way, a lot of characteristics we value in friends could fall under the umbrella of chill. Maybe it’s a double-edged sword. On one end it can be helpful as a set of personal values, like being intelligent and a good listener, on the other end it’s limiting because it can cause you to dampen down your passions.

N: Going off of that, a feminist is often thought of as someone who is a “bra-burning” radical; it’s a categorization that can be very negative. How does “chill” fit into this idea of a feminist as someone who is an outspoken individual?

J: It goes back to the point of legitimate anger; how legitimate is it to be passionately angry? When it comes to feminism and chillness, I think chillness is problematic. A lot of girls see feminists as “crazy” outspoken people who they don’t want to associate with for fear of losing their chill image. Just because you’re a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t also have a lot of chill qualities or take on other identifying characteristics.

N: So in a sense there is a personal chillness that can be positive, and a political chillness that can be negative if it means compromising your opinions and assertiveness.

J: There is this component of being chill that hinges on wanting straight male approval.

N: Right, instead of wanting an honest connection, “chill” culture can result in passive connections so as to please a patriarchal standard that exists in our culture.

J: Do we think that the word is rooted in sexism?

N: Part of me wants to say yes, because chillness is held up to a straight male standard of normativity. Part of me wants to say no, because being chill also means being honest, straight-forward, and laid-back.

J: There is a component that relies on humility.

N: I guess I still feel that it’s easier for guys to assert their opinions and not be labeled “crazy” dramatic individuals. Being assertive as a guy is almost never a problem. You could be assertive, a male, and be chill. Those three don’t go hand-in-hand for girls.

J: It’s sexist to a certain extent, otherwise we wouldn’t have started this conversation. In some way because chill is a compliment, it’s sexist. It’s like saying: “this person is one of the good ones.”

N: By saying you’re chill, you’re “one of the good ones” who can hang out with guys, the compliment can be applied to a person who doesn’t challenge the dominant patriarchal culture. 

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