When I the wife took a weekend trip to Lisbon a while back I checked out a guide book from the library. It was a personal book, written by a Swedish man who visited the city for the first time 20 years ago, fell in love with it and went back again and again.
It was very helpful, but one little authorial habit made us chuckle every time we noticed it, once we’ve identified the pattern. I doubt the author was aware of it, but many of the times he recommended cafés, praised their cozy interiors, well-dressed staff, and picturesque surroundings, he couldn’t help pointing out that they also had “good coffee”. Same phrase, every time. It’s nice to know, I guess, but not overly useful. They were cafés, after all.
It could’ve signified nothing but a quirk the editor should’ve caught, but it reminded us of a phenomenon we both disliked about contemporary urban, middle class culture: consumption skill as a status symbol.
Taste is pretty worthless
By “consumption skill” I mean being knowledgeable and discerning about consumables like food, wine, beer, spirits, coffee, olive oil, salts and whatever. It means having sensitive, discriminating tastes, often to the point of when consuming them becomes a matter of analysis, judgment and critique as much as enjoyment. Liking to show off such skills isn’t a new phenomenon. Well-developed tastes in many domains, not just food and drink, has been a status symbol among the upper class for a long, long time (probably because it was the only thing hereditary nobility had to be proud of), but it’s trickled down further and further. I’m not fond of it.
I don’t hate it with a burning passion, I just find something sad and a tiny bit pathetic about a lifestyle built around consumption, as opposed to creation and production. It’s like people’s healthy striving for self-actualization gets diverted into the dead end of getting increasingly skilled at passively having and interpreting transient and fundamentally empty experiences.
“Can’t you let people enjoy things?”
Sure, go ahead. I enjoy things too. But cultivating your taste just doesn’t count as personal growth in my book, and I feel people are too prone to treating it like it does. It’s as if having discriminating tastes was an actual virtue, rather than a mere sign of wealth and leisure spent, or even squandered, with a minimum of imagination. It just isn’t anything to brag about.
It seems to me the remnants of old-fashioned classism, when we openly and unapologetically conflated wealth with virtue (just look a the word “noble” — and their wealth was completely unearned!). In that past, people who had the economic means to become good at consumption were still higher in status than the people who had the skills to actually make the things that were consumed, and I feel that too much of this ass-backwards view is still with us. Money talks, so this is still a symbol of status, but an ultimately worthless, zero-sum type of status that belongs on the scrap heap of history.
Now… hold on a little. Isn’t it a little excessive to go off on a rant against shitty aspects of premodern classism carried over into modern consumerism just because some perfectly nice guy said some Portuguese cafés had good coffee a few more times than necessary? Isn’t it almost unhinged? Indeed, but a big part of the reason it seems as crazy as it does is because this post is in English.
“Good” vs. “good”
The part about consumerism was preamble. This post is actually about language, and the ways our choices of words show what we want to signal to others. Languages carve up the world in different ways, and therefore enable us to broadcast different things about ourselves to others.
The talk about “good coffee” in the guide book was not in English but in Swedish, and in Swedish “good coffee” can be translated in two ways: either as “gott kaffe” or “bra kaffe”, both of which would translate back to “good coffee” in English pretty much 100% of the time.
English do have two words covering the same space as these, but the line between them is drawn differently. In English we can call things we eat or drink that we like either “tasty” or “good”. “Tasty” is, however, on the low end, about as classy as the word “classy” itself. If we imagine a continuum of foodstuff enjoyment that goes from the openly subjective, hedonistic end of “this hits my personal pleasure buttons oooo yeahhhh”, towards the supposedly objective “this is of inherently high quality and I’m appreciating that, sniff” the use of “tasty” vs. “good” in English looks roughly like this by my estimate:
Most of the time you don’t say “tasty”, unless you specifically want to communicate the raw, subjective, enjoyment. “Good” is the default word that covers most of the neutral, unspecified territory. Saying “tasty” about coffee, beer or wine is pretty rare.
Now imagine that the spectrum was sliced the other way around, and the big neutral area was continuous with the left end rather than the right end. Instead of being able to use a specific word to communicate a subjective, hedonistic kind of enjoyment separately from a more general appreciation, you could use a word to indicate that you specifically enjoy the item’s objective quality.
Why, that way you could subtly boast about your ability to recognize such objective quality — your good taste, in other words — while ostensibly complementing something other than yourself! Social life hack!
Welcome to Swedish. Our spectrum looks something like this:
(“God” vs. “gott” depends on grammatical gender).
And people do use “bra kaffe”, or “bra vin” (good wine) or “bra mat” (good food) this way. When you’ve started listening for it you can’t stop hearing it. I particularly remember a TV commercial for orange juice that ran a few years ago, where they had a thoughtful-looking middle-class guy drink the juice from a wine glass and go “bra… riktigt bra” (good, really good). I’m still not entirely sure if they were being sarcastic or sincere with it.
Now, every instance becomes a reminder of how consumption skills are a status symbol for a particularly shitty kind of status, that people try to claim for themselves, partially subconsciously. That’s why the guide book author’s incessant attributions of specifically “bra kaffe” felt worthy of some minor mocking, in a way “good coffee” wouldn’t have been in English.
This example is trivial, of course, but illustrative: by comparing languages we can become more aware of how the peculiarities of our own language affects what’s easy or difficult to express, and therefore what gets expressed more, or less.
• • •
This sentiment was the driving reason for me to start blogging in the first place. At 32 it started to feel increasingly pathetic to keep reading and reading interesting stuff without producing any. Not that it was a new feeling. I’m probably an outlier on this trait, but from about age 7 onwards, for me enjoying anything at all has reliably and quickly translated into a felt need to make my own versions of it. I like Donald Duck comics—I should write my own; I like this stage farce—I should write my own; I like the Mortal Kombat video game—I should design my own characters; I like music—I should write my own songs; I like this Civilization game—I should make my own mod; I like computer-generated graphics—I should make my own; I like these paintings—I should paint my own; I like nice photographs—I should snap my own; I like novels—I should write my own; I like clothes—I should sew my own; I like board games—I should make my own; I like card games—I should design my own; I like this conlang— I should make my own; I like this joke format— I should write my own; I like the way this script looks—I should make up my own; I like this font—I should design my own; I like this ARG—I should make my own; I like this evolution simulation—I should code my own; I like this baroque music—I should compose my own; I like beautiful furniture—I should build my own. Etc, etc. And I did them all, some for longer than others. Blogging is the thing I still do. I guess, to me, this feels like an obligatory part of enjoying things to begin with, and without it enjoyment is meaningless.
There are other cases like this. A particularly notable one is the sex/gender pair. In English the connotation spectrum from “biological categories” to “social constructs” is split quite far to the left side. “Gender” holds most of the neutral territory, and “sex” rather specifically evokes biology.
Swedish is different. “Kön” (sex) and “genus” (gender) divide the territory in opposite proportions. “Genus” is extremely rare for referring to actual people. It’s mostly just for the concept of social constructs around gender generally.