published Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Kennedy: Mannerly but not that mild

Mild-mannered. Adjective. "Gentle and not given to extremes of emotion."

— Oxford American Dictionary

Mild-mannered. Gentle. Not emotional.

So, here's today's question: All things being equal, would you consider it a compliment or a put-down to be called mild-mannered? Put another way: Is being mild-mannered a virtue or does it mark you as a wimp?

I found myself asking that question after somebody recently referred to me in public as a mild-mannered editor. It set me to thinking about what personality traits our culture values, and whether good manners and a mild personality are still a plus in today's hair-on-fire world.

Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter and alter ego of Superman, seemed to make out pretty well. And doesn't the Bible promise that the meek will inherit the earth?

On the other hand, mild-mannered sort of sounds like a side effect of Low-T. If you're a man, being called mild-mannered makes you want to punch something.

I've been stuck with this mild-mannered tag for most of my life. I remember in first grade a Sunday School teacher asked me to name my favorite cartoon character, and I said Casper the Friendly Ghost. She repeated it to some of the other church ladies, and my good-boy persona was born. I remember being embarrassed and flattered at the same time. Even at age 6, though, I recall thinking that projecting a mild-mannered image can be useful.

Through the years, people have been astonished when they see my Scotch-Irish temper flash, as it doesn't fit their expectation of me as a composed person.

In a cutthroat, competitive world there isn't much daylight between being mild-mannered and being a pushover. But we mild-mannered people learn that opportunity comes when people underestimate us. The Type-A people write us off and then one day -- BOOM! -- we have turned things to our advantage by mastering the invisible levers of power.

There is evidence that being mild-mannered is "trending" -- as they say in the Twitterverse.

Google's Ngram Viewer is an online graphing tool that's nothing short of amazing. Type in any word or phrase and, in a split second, the Ngram Viewer scans 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008 to determine its prevalence over time.

For kicks, I scanned "mild-mannered." Interestingly, usage of the term spiked during World War II -- 1943 to be exact -- then fell out of favor for about a generation. Next, "mild-mannered" started a slow ascent in 1965 that has continued practically unabated for more than four decades.

In the written word -- which reflects culture -- using the label "mild-mannered" has become more and more popular, over time. I've got to believe that's an indication that people are warming up to the idea that being mild-mannered is a good thing.

At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. And it beats punching a wall.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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