“Oh, don’t worry,” my friends say about someone I have yet to meet, “he’s very laid-back.”
Little do they know that that is when I start worrying.
Describe somebody as “laid-back” and I have an inner reaction of tension, irritability and apprehension. I would far rather be told that someone is “formal”. At least, then, I know that I am dealing with a wooden or metal object with a well-defined shape and clear-cut edges. “Laid-back” evokes vague, non-descript mush I have no idea how to pick up or handle.
“Laid-back” is supposed to suggest relaxed, unfussy, unconcerned with minute details. What is unclear to me, is whether this free for all detachment concerns that person’s business alone, or whether it will also spill – uninvited – onto my territory. The thing about a “laid-back” attitude, is that it is just as tyrannical as formality – except that you are not allowed to mind it, or rebel against it. After all, you can try breaking down (or at least bending) the rules of formality but how do you push away a pulp of egg white floating in an oxygen-free cabin?
A formal person will be on time. If he or she is late, then you have grounds for objection (or gracious forgiveness). A “laid-back” person will have a more fluid concept of time, so is likely to drift in late (funny how “laid-back” people are never early) totally unaware of the fact that his or her behaviour clearly implies that your time is less valuable than his or hers. So, on the grounds of his/her diminished responsibility, your right to protest is taken away from you – and so is your freedom to organise your own time how you see fit. If, however, this person does happen to walk in on the strike of the clock, then you are deprived of the joy to appreciate his or her punctuality, since you do not know if it is a show of respect towards you, or a mere accident of fate. The same person will forget to pay you back money you lent and hold onto your books for months on end... Sometimes even losing them.
With “laid-back” the boundaries are blurred. With formality, they are crisp and clear. The beauty of formality, is that it is a game with well-defined rules which you can use to your advantage. With “laid-back” you are playing hide-and-seek in No Man’s Land, without a compass.
With “laid-back” we are all on first name terms in a professional environment, where such friendliness often feels just fake and patronising. We forget the common courtesy of thanking our hosts after a dinner party or a friend for a present. We wear the same casual clothes day in, day out, whether to work, to a party, or to a West End opening night. The trouble with “laid-back”, is that it kills the sense of occasion, the sense of the special versus the ordinary.
“Laid-back” bullies you into being friendly, careless and ordinary to an extent beyond your comfort zone – and pretending that you like it. Paradoxally, formality gives you the freedom – the choice to be informal and when – and only when – it is appropriate, laid-back.