Created | Updated Mar 20, 2013
What is charm then? The free giving of a grace, the spending of something given by nature in her role as a spendthrift...something extra, superfluous, unnecessary, essentially a power thrown away.
– Doris Lessing
Those of us transiting this hopeless planet, and given to observing the social interactions of the human animals that inhabit it, will find ourselves bemused and puzzled from time to time by a seemingly pointless embroidery in their conversations called 'charm'. Instead of dealing with the bad temper and aggression that characterise so much of their intercourse we occasionally find ourselves 'charmed' by an agreeable pleasantry, befuddled by a display of wit and grace. We are rendered passive and our defences disabled by a half-smile and a twinkling eye.
As we watch these heavy-hearted humans wend their weary way from birth to grave it seems alarmingly apparent that anything that can be done to raise their spirits, to lighten their days, must surely be a good thing. If their daily dealings can be eased and made occasionally pleasant by the judicious use of a little charm, it can only be positive.
So what is this charm? Do we need it? Where do we get it from? What does it cost? Is it exclusive to silver-haired gentlemen of a certain age or can anyone do it? Let us try and learn a little, but, first, can we please define our terms? Two definitions concern us here: 'the power or quality of delighting or fascinating others' and 'an ... act ... believed to have magic power.'
Right, then, off to...
A word of warning. You may be expecting a 'Charm School' to teach you etiquette, manners and politeness. These may be essentials for those wishing to 'get ahead' but are not under consideration here. Here we are looking for a little magic.
For our first lesson let us see if we can distinguish between politeness, wit and charm.
Politeness is, surely, learned. It grows with a sense of confidence, familiarity with circumstance. It is a necessary lubricant of social discourse, a way to ease yourself in and out of situations. You will not get far without it. Wit is, perhaps, innate, part of character. But wit can be superficial: one can live on one's wits without actually participating in life to any great depth. Wit can often be cruel, an end in itself.
Charm is neither. It is unnecessary, as unnecessary as the froth on your cappuccino or the perfume at your wrist. Yes, we can pass through life without it, and many of these humans do, but life, surely, is pleasanter for the addition of charm. The important distinction to make is, surely, that charm is a one-way street. You (hopefully) direct it at someone else, not needing or expecting anything in return. Politeness is usually a mutual undertaking. Wit demands an audience and response.
This is an important lesson. When using charm you must not leave the tiniest obligation behind you. The charmee, the recipient, must have no thought that she/he is expected to reciprocate in any way.
Charm should be effusive. For our second class, let us look at a scenario, a service situation, in a hotel in, let us say, Cornwall. You are the hotel-keeper.
Now, listen here my good man/woman your customer might say, with a degree of 'face' coming as they do from a seedy bedsit in Croydon, Our sheets are not ironed, the plumbing is atrocious, the sink plughole is full of hair and the pot-pourri is stale!
Now, you, the much put upon, if not Basil-esque, manager have a choice to make here. You can huff and bluff, along the lines of...
What do you expect for ten quid a night?
...or charm can be employed, preferably with a sympathetic smile.
Sir/Madam. I apologise. The maid was about to clean your room when she received a telegram to say that her ageing mother back in Bulgaria had just won the state lottery. Thus distracted she failed to clean your room with her customary zeal and, in fact, left our employ shortly afterwards to take up a life of luxury. In the meantime, my Bulgarian not being what it should be, I failed to ascertain exactly which of her daily tasks she had and had not completed1. If you would permit me to serve you a free drink in the bar, I shall immediately rectify the situation.
Your opponent (sorry, customer) is thus disarmed, nonplussed and unlikely to take the matter further. They may even smile at the outrageousness of the lie.
The lesson to learn is that, in using charm as a weapon of disarmament, it is best applied as thickly as possible. Like fresh butter on a warm crumpet, there is no point in spreading it thinly. Note, also, the lack of need for that tiresome tool of the pedant, the truth.
What would Audrey Hepburn do? (Nature vs nurture)
One picture of a 'charmer' is that of a silver-haired gentleman (SHG), who usually enjoys using his charm around women though finds that it – like so much else in life – is wasted on the young. To answer the question posed in the introduction, charm is by no means exclusive to SHGs. It can be used by anyone, anyone at all. They (SHGs) may have had more years of practice to perfect their effortless weaponry but the callow youth may learn to be equally adept, with practice. They might imagine how Ms Hepburn or an SHG (Cary Grant for example) might approach the situation and attempt to replicate. However, being callow and youthful, they may well be besieged by doubts as to when, where and how to apply the magic – if that is what it is. It may be that the younger person cannot be charming, because they lack the self-confidence to be frivolous. In the very young, 'charm' is 'cheek'. A 'cheeky chappie' may well amuse but is actually entertaining, and thus looking for a response/applause. With experience and increasing self-confidence, it may be that cheek develops into charm as the need for response, applause and recognition lessens. Ms Hepburn was able to add effortless poise, a natural elegance and a sharp intelligence to her charm genes to devastating effect. Watch, learn and imitate those who you suspect may have the magic. The aforementioned Ms Hepburn has it2, the public persona of Ms Katie Price certainly does not.
So, that's Lesson Three: practice makes perfect. Your homework is to implement this. On the next occasion when a companion is regaling you with their opinion of... whatever, instead of constantly butting in, wanting to offer your own nuggets of wisdom, let them complete their tirade and then look them in the eyes (making sure that your own eyes are twinkling away merrily, and the half-smile is properly applied – we don't want anything misconstrued as sarcasm) and say 'What a wonderful way you have with words'. Note the effect in your journal.
The final lesson for this session. We have so far learned:
- Charm must be used for its own sake, otherwise it is ingratiating.
- It must be used with respect, otherwise it is sarcasm.
- It must be used with kindness, otherwise it is pointless.
- A charming person is self-confident, worldly-wise, humorous, carries no malice, cares for others, is thoughtful, and, above all, bears their talent(s) lightly. And yet, and yet... Something is wrong here, these guys are not saints. What happened to 'a roguish charm'? If rogues can use it, we must be missing something. We have forgotten the twinkle in the eye. Remember 'the lack of need for truth'?
- Charm hints at a deception, does it not? It makes you think something is one way, a good way, when in fact it may not be. A sleight of hand perhaps, a touch of magic applied to bring delight and fascination.
Is Charm a Form of Magic?
Well, of course it is. It is usually unexpected, and casts a little moment of, if not happiness, then certainly a lightness of being. But not semantically. As a synonym for spell, it is a different word entirely.
Can Places, or Inanimate Objects, be Charming?
A charming village/café/picture. A misapplication of the word, surely. Substitute 'pretty' or 'full of character' or 'nice'. Hang on a minute, though. A plimsole can appear charming, trainers cannot. Jeans are rarely charming3, Capri pants usually are. Perhaps we are missing something here...
A Warning, Addressed to the Gullible
Please be careful when confronted by a charmer. Test their skills against the template in Lesson Four. If there is no warmth behind the charm, if you feel any sort of obligation, if the eyes are not twinkling then skidaddle, remove yourself from their company. You may well have met a deceiver, a worthless rogue or, at an exceptional worst, a psychopath.
An Instruction, by Way of Conclusion
There seems little doubt that a sprinkling of charm upon your daily intercourse with your co-habitants, at least the human ones, of this puny globe will not go amiss, and may indeed help them, and you, proceed with a dignity acquired from the knowledge that you, and they, are capable of a little civilised behaviour. Learn it. Use it. Enjoy!