You’re so serious, he says over sushi as he taps me playfully on the arm. He is not the first man to level this criticism. It’s not that I want to single men out, but this is something I’ve heard from a lot of men over the years, while I still have yet to hear it from a woman. For a long time it mystified me as much as it annoyed me. Anyone who knows me personally knows that, to be frank, I’m a bit of a ham. I love to laugh and I love to make other people laugh. I’m a playful person. My friend at works describes me as whimsical.
To the uninitiated mind the aforementioned comment might sound like an innocent observation, but for me it feels like a variation of the unsolicited smile command. On a date, which is generally the context where I have heard this, you’re so serious feels like the imposition of a desire; a desire to talk about certain topics over other topics; a desire for me to be overtly pleasant; a desire for me to match my dinner partner in terms of interests or mood; a desire not to be challenged. The polite implication is that it would be nice if I could be a little less ‘serious’, a little less of whatever this person finds uncomfortable and a little more of its opposite. It would suite them better if I could do that. Underneath this criticism there is a request. There is a request to subvert my own needs, thoughts, desires, in order to conform to the needs and desires of this other person.
Most women, as well as people who belong to other minority groups such as the LGBTQ2++ population, people of colour, people with disabilities, have spent their lives attending to the norms and needs of patriarchy. They have become experts at conforming and they strain inside these moulds. When you stand back and look at this larger picture, it’s easier to understand why a seemingly innocent comment about seriousness might bristle.
But all of this operates under the assumption that seriousness is a bad thing. This week in The New Yorker, Tobi Haslett profiles the writer and intellectual Susan Sontag. He writes: “the point was to be serious about power and serious about pleasure: cherish literature, relish films, challenge domination, release yourself into the rapture of sexual need-but be thorough about it”.
In her journal, in her youth, Sontag echoes this, writing: “Seriousness is really a virtue for me”.
Then again, months before she died, Sontag writes that all writers should “love words, agonize over sentences, pay attention to the world, and be serious”.
So, what does it mean to be serious in this way? The word serious comes from the latin word series, which is ‘heavy’ or ‘weighty’ or ‘important’. While heavy has become synonymous in some quarters with burden, heavy may also suggest fullness and richness. A bag that is heavy with treasure. A mysterious package that is heavy. A princess whose garment is heavy with jewels. A book bag heavy with books. To the serious person, the world is similarly heavy, weighted and pregnant with meaning. To be serious is to consider the depth of meaning that is carried in even the smallest thing. It is a mindfulness of sorts, a way of moving through the world with consideration and thoughtfulness. In nowadays words, to be serious is to be woke.
From the year 1800 and the German schwer, the word serious also means attended with danger. And it must be acknowledged that the ability to be serious, the gift of seriousness, often arises from having fear as your constant companion. Those who are oppressed in a society survive by learning to read the world and its systems of power, by noticing and considering the world in all its weight, by treating each thing, each encounter, as potentially important. Seriousness is a gift and a beast or burden, arising as it often does from our negotiations with a threatening world. In this way, the ability to completely divorce from seriousness can be seen as a privilege, albeit a tragic hindrance in its myopia.