In recent years, “chill” has become one of the most desirable qualities in a romantic prospect. But it is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species.
By Alana Massey
Illustration by Ana Benaroya
The Great Chill Massacre of 2014 was not premeditated. When I woke up that morning, I had no idea that I’d end the day going from casually dating six men to formally and intentionally dating zero. But then two of the six men coincidentally sent texts admiring my “chill,” and it became clear that drastic and draconian measures would be required to set the record straight. It seems that my poker face is too perfect when men report a desire to “see what happens.” My willingness to call dates “hanging out” in perpetuity sometimes gives the impression that I am in possession of the amorphous and increasingly desirable characteristic of Chill. And so in a fit of shamelessness and glory, I sent some variation of the text, “I’m actually looking for something serious so I’m not planning to see you anymore” to all six of them. Incredulity and attempts to lure me back into my Chill with more empty promises that we could “see where it goes” were ignored or actively mocked. I killed what little Chill I actually had and I shed no tears for it.
To the uninitiated, having Chill and being cool are synonyms. They describe a person with a laid-back attitude, an absence of neurosis, and reasonably interesting tastes and passions. But the person with Chill is crucially missing these last ingredients because they are too far removed from anything that looks like intensity to have passions. They have discernible tastes and beliefs but they are unlikely to materialize as passionate. Passion is polarizing; being enthusiastic or worked up is downright obsessive. Excessive Chill is “You do you” taken to its most extreme conclusion, giving everyone’s opinions and interests equal value so long as they’re authentically ours.
In an infamous passage in Gone Girl, the elusive “Cool Girl” is described as a woman who declares, “I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2.” The “Cool Girl” is, of course, remarkably dull in her interests because they center almost exclusively on the man with whom she is so inexplicably enraptured. But the “Cool Girl” has no Chill. She likes him far too much and lets it show. Chill is different — it is agreeable because it is emotionally vacant. Chill is what Cool would look like with a lobotomy and no hobbies. And for a large subset of the population, Chill is one of the most desirable qualities in a romantic prospect.
I am originally from San Diego where Chill was as much a part of our culture as burritos and surfing and lifted Toyota Tacoma trucks. It was an insistence on going with the flow, rolling with the punches. It would have been about saying “C’est la vie!” to all the shitty shit that happened if more people there had taken French. The ever-reliable Urban Dictionary has 111 definitions of “chill,” the first of which appeared in June 2002. Most of these descriptions describe the act of chilling, which is either hanging out or smoking weed, and sometimes both. The others describe being chill, an adjective to describe being calm, laid back, or relaxed. The first instance of Chill as a noun appears in 2013 under the term “No Chill” and describes a range of people who are reckless or lacking rationality. These definitions are deceptively simple ways of asking people to have fewer strong emotions.
Early adopters of the sexual liberation and drug culture in the 1960s had a prototype for Chill in their sexual mores and free spirits. Each decade since has seen an increasing interest in eschewing anything that might limit the free expression and experience of one’s interior life and carnal desires. But this kind of Chill still had an emotional dimension. Hippies coined the term “free love” rather than “free sex.” The pioneers who brought “open relationship” into the mainstream vernacular the early aughts to describe non-traditional partnerships still acknowledged that feelings were involved at some level. An open relationship is, after all, still a relationship.
Chill has now slithered into our romantic lives and forced those among us who would like to exchange feelings and accountability to compete in the Blasé Olympics with whomever we are dating. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean whomever we are “hanging out with.” Whomever we are “talking to.” Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings. To even acknowledge that there might be an emotional dimension to talking or dating or hanging out or coming over or fucking or whatever the kids are calling it all these days feels forbidden. It is a game of chicken where the first person to confess their frustration or confusion loses.
But Chill is not the opposite of uptight. It is the opposite of demanding accountability. Chill is a sinister refashioning of “Calm down!” from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude. Chill suggests that young love is best expressed as competitive ambivalence. Chill demands that you see a Read receipt followed by a “Hey, was asleep” text three hours later and not proceed to throw your phone into the nearest volcano. Chill asks you to be like, “LOL, what volcano?” Chill presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations. Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck Chill.
As is evident by now, I have Net Zero Chill. Anyone with real Chill would never do something so erratic and shrill as capitalize the first letter of the word. Because that is making it a thing. And people with Chill do not make anything a thing. Indeed, when asked the status of their relationship, the response with the most Chill is, “Oh, we’re not a thing.” We have reached a point where the best possible answer is to deny that the two of you even exist. I don’t think that it is so much to ask that I be considered a thing — at least some kind of thing — if I am engaging in emotional or sexual intimacy with someone.
I routinely happen upon men who are perplexed when I eventually declare that I want to know where we stand. Indecision is not a noble virtue. If a man is in “Not really feeling this becoming more than what it is,” territory, I should be made aware in no uncertain terms. If a man is in “I am waiting for someone else to be my girlfriend but I’ll keep you around till I find her” territory, I ought to know that too. My feelings, and the feelings of many people I know, are more hurt by the prolonged waiting for a concrete answer while we sit quietly with our feigned Chill. It is as if I’ve broken some unwritten law when I ask what they are looking for and am dissatisfied with the answer “I don’t really like to put labels on things.” But putting labels on things are how people find the exit during a fire and make sure they’re adding vanilla extract to the cake instead of arsenic.
My aim is not to force everyone to return in lock-step to monogamous relationships that begin after exactly 8.3 dates and result in marriage 29 months later. Such relationships are not for everyone. I am a firm believer that everyone ought to exercise their God-given right to use Tinder in whatever fashion is most suitable for their present relationship goals (or lack thereof). But it ought to be acknowledged that the two of us are not, in fact, just chilling when we get together.
So, ladies and gentleman and people who do not believe in the binary, we have reached peak Chill. Or at least I hope we have. Because Chill is the opposite of something else too: warmth. And kindness, and earnestness, and vulnerability. And we need just enough of those things to occasionally do something so remarkably unchill as fall in love.