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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.