Good vs. Good

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[1].

“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:

coffee1

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[2]. 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:

coffee2(“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.

• • •

Notes

[1]
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.

[2]
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.

coffee3

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.

coffee4

15 thoughts on “Good vs. Good

  1. It seems hard to be productive at “creation and production” without some kind of “consumption skill”. How else would one know whether the things one is creating or producing are good or worth making (even just to oneself)?

    I think “having discriminating tastes” is, or can be, an actual virtue. In the form of, e.g. “Here, try this!” – it can be entirely generous.

    > just look a the word “noble” — and their wealth was completely unearned!

    I think we’d agree that nobility, historically, didn’t earn their wealth (or status or anything else of value they had relatively more of than others) in the way we might have wanted, but I don’t think it’s fair to say they didn’t earn it at all. I’m sure my current views are colored by the kinds of things I’ve been reading lately, but I find myself pretty sympathetic towards nobles. I think they were all ‘trapped’ by common strategic concerns. A competitive military was functionally critical for nearly every ‘civilized’ society, if only to defend oneself (and one’s peoples). But developing and maintaining an effective military is effectively impossible without experience, i.e. regular violent conflict. I’d think escaping that strategic trap to be more surprising and amazing than not. The other negative consequences, to the non-nobles, is still sad, but also understandable.

    And then I finished reading the rest of the post, and the first comment confirming the answer to the same question I had afterwards, where you explained the distinction between sharing a ‘discriminating taste’ like “You might like this!” versus “Of course you prefer the fine versions of this more, right?”.

    I’m totally with you on that. But I still stand by my previous objections!

    But I also think that ‘taste arbitrage’ is perhaps massively under-appreciated, e.g. discovering “Oh, I actually prefer the less expensive versions of X; win!”.

    I like coffee that’s relatively expensive. I’m sure some people really are entirely satisfied drinking cheaper coffee (if by no other evidence than revealed preference). I’ve had wine that tasted really good to me that was also expensive, but I usually look for, and find, very cheap wines that are nearly as good (again, to me). I once thought that I just didn’t like a wide variety of liquors, but then I discovered that I did in fact like more expensive versions. But even later, I discovered that there were cheaper versions of those same liquors that I liked as much, and sometimes more, than the expensive ones.

    The overall lesson I’ve learned isn’t ‘Taste is objective’ or ‘Taste is subjective’ but ‘Taste is objective, but includes the tasters too’, e.g. there are objective reasons why I like certain things. And, if I’m lucky, those objective reasons aren’t reasons for that thing to be actually more expensive, i.e. considered to be ‘objectively good’ (for everyone).

    And, in English, the word I probably most consider to be roughly equivalent to Swedish ‘bra’ would be ‘fine’, e.g. ‘fine wine’, ‘fine china’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Several good points. I’ll edit the post to make clear that it was the word choice of the author that made him seem a bit silly, not the act of talking about the coffee itself.

      I don’t think the post supports the interpretation that discriminating tastes can be both enjoyable and useful for creation, it’s that I object to it being a status symbol by itself. Just having it is nothing to brag about.

      About nobility… yeah I know there are complications there. Nobility as a class often had a useful function in the social system it existed in, etc., but I didn’t care as it was just a throwaway line. Plus I had in mind mostly later nobility who no longer had the same military and order-keeping duties and basically just owned stuff.

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    2. “Fine” is interesting because the complexity is similar there. “Bra” in Swedish and “fine” in English also have similar meanings but slice a continuum a little differently: it’s ambigous if the word refers to inherent qualities or a high social position. I.e. “fine wine” refers to both wine of high quality and of high status.

      Those aspects can be taken apart as well. In Swedish, “bra” takes most of the “good quality” meaning, leaving the social status aspect more to the naive “fine”-equvalent: “fin”. “Fint vin” (“fine” wine) and “fin mat” (“fine” food) can be hard to say with a straight face in Swedish because it’s so nakedly about status. The meaning is closer to “fancy” than “fine.”

      This subtle shifting around of words that sound like they should mean the same happens a lot of the time and it makes translation a bitch.

      Now consider that individual people also often have this slight but significant misalignment between what they think words mean…

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  2. Your footnote links are broken. You have `href={fn_blog, fn_gender, ref_blog, ref_gender}`, but you need `href={#fn_blog, #fn_gender, #ref_blog, #ref_gender}`.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It seems one gets bonus points in this game by claiming to discern degrees of quality in things that are pretty nasty at best, and for reasons with nothing to do with why we really consume them.

    Ice cream varies in deliciousness enormously, and we eat it *only* because it’s delicious. But good luck making a living as an Ice Cream Reviewer.

    Find ways to review coffees, cigars, or booze — without mentioning jolts, buzzes, or hangovers — and you’re golden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe there’s some connection there. With something unarguably tasty like ice cream, we seem to acknowledge personal taste quite strongly. If I’m standing in front of the ice cream counter with my friends I might suggest something like “you should try the passion fruit sorbet, it’s awesome!”, but there’s an implicit understanding that everyone is going to pick according to their individual tastes.

      I think it might be because the baseline enjoyment of eating ice cream is so high. With a high baseline of enjoyment there’s a lot of room for variation. If the baseline of ice cream on a hypothetical pleasure scale is 300, a 20% variation between the best and worst ice cream is 60 pleasure points. A difference which you will definitely notice.

      On the other hand, the baseline enjoyment of drinking coffee might be something like 10 pleasure points. And even if there is a 20% variation between best and worst, that’s only 2 pleasure points. That might take a certain amount of concentration to notice at all. Which means the difference between good and bad coffee is so subtle that there is a lot of room for discussion.

      Compare to ice cream, where, if someone tries to tell me the caramel ice cream is the best I’ll just laugh at them. There’s no arguing with my personal experience of a 60 pleasure point difference, so it would just be silly to try to convince me my least favourite ice cream is the best.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Yeah that another important dimension. It feels like a lot of connoiseurship is there to obfuscate that it’s a drug we’re talking about and that’s the fundamental reason we’re consuming it. You need to work on enjoying the incidental qualities.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In Sweden we have been commenting on the quality of coffee for generations. It’s not a middle class thing as it may seem to be in the UK. I remember as a child in the 60s in Sweden visiting neighbour’s in the countryside (certainly not middle class) and it was standard to praise the host’s good coffee. It’s a very swedish thing and a specific coffee thing and clearly doesn’t translate well. (Good wine etc is a totally different thing)

    I moved to the UK 1983. It was extremely hard to find drinkable coffee anywhere, never mind good. Tea was usually the only option.

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    1. Mmm, I’m aware. The point made isn’t about complementing coffee per se, but using “bra” rather than “gott” to do it. If you’re in somebody’s home and they serve you coffee you say: “mmm vilket gott kaffe!” not “mmm riktigt bra kaffe”. Or, at least I’d consider you a bit of a poser if you did.

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  5. Dear Mr. Nernst. I am an avid reader of your blog from India. I discovered your blog from “Rationally Speaking”, and I was immediately hooked by your blog’s clean style, and your lucid writing.

    Sir, I especially admire your work on “Partial Derivatives, Partial Narratives” and “The More the Merrier”. The way you describe relativism has really made a practical impact on my life, and made me more open-minded. Your blog really offers a unique, one-of-a-kind perspective.

    Mr. Nernst, can you suggest any good books on “Postmodernism for engineers”? I myself being an engineer desire to learn about Postmodernism, but am skeptical of the art students approach it. Are there any good resources/books/blogs/YouTubers/etc which you can suggest?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Sadly I don’t know about any such books, I’ve been looking for them myself. The best tip I have is to check out meaningness.com, it’s written by a computer science researcher who explores precisely these topics.

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  6. I think that developing personal taste is much more valuable than training some alignment with the intersubjectively agreed sense of what is good. Knowing what you like, what works for you, what you vibe with… helps you find more! And is part of enjoyment itself, in some sense. “Yes, *THIS* [song/coffee/sandwich].”

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