Those of us transitting 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'. Charm, as we shall see, is the yeast in the dough of daily transaction. It raises the mundane to another plane - or should that be crust?. We meet people who are 'charming', We are 'charmed'. Transfixed by an agreeable pleasantry, befuddled by a display of wit and politeness, we find ourselves rendered passive and our aggression diffused by a half smile and a twinkling eye. So what is this charm? do we need it? where do we get it from? What does it cost? Is it a symptom of a Crazy Heart And Restless Mind, or can anyone do it?
Delighted by charm?
"Pray, take from me a vastly inflated sum of my hard-earned money in exchange for this poorly manufactured good that I find that I, alas, need."
(You may say to some hapless shop assistant)
The response may be:-
I thank you Sir/Madam.. "Ching". May I put it in a bag for you? Have a nice day. - A polite, but unnecessarily effusive response, which ignores, and probably has not heard, the bleating complaint of the shopper.
Thank you Sir/Madam, and may I say how much I share your sentiment, and, indeed, your analysis of the exchange of labour for goods.. "Ching" - Again polite, again effusive, acknowledging the shopper's whine, but he/she was not looking for a discussion, and there is something obsequious about the hijacking of another's style, even if done sympathetically.
A pleasure, as always Sir/Madam, to part you from your money.. "Ching" - charming!
So how is it that the last example contains charm, and the others do not? How does this delight the shopper and send him/her on their way a little lighter of heart? Well, there is sympathy, even empathy, in a rueful and ironic acknowledgement of the shopper's position. There is the implied familiarity of 'as always' that enjoys the relationship, and hopes that it continues. There is some humour.
So, from this this one small example we can see that 'Charm' ought to:
1) Imply sympathy
3) Contain humour and/or a sense of fun
CHARM AS LUBRICANT
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 social interactions can be eased and made occasionally pleasant by the judicious use of a little charm, it can only be positive. Let us try and learn a little.
THE h2g2 CHARM SCHOOL
For our first class, let us look at another scenario, a similar service situation, this time in a hotel in, let us say, Cornwall. You are the hotel-keeper.
"Now, listen hear 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! I demand a refund!!"
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.
"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 completed.1If 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 warm toast, there is no point in spreading it thinly.
For our second lesson (and note that charm works best applied to strangers. Friends and family know you too well.) let us transport ourselves to a railway terminus. You, the charmer, are a healthy male and your protagonist, a beauteous young maiden2, are catching a train to a distant place.
"May I... ?" You are holding the door open and offering to help with heavy baggage.
"I am quite capable. Thank you." Hmm.. an independent sort.
"I can see that you are more than capable! But it would please me to help."You see!! Charm!
"Well. OK then. Just this one!" Ungracious, but we are on the way.
"And the rucksack?"
"Hmm." Grudging, but weakening.
"Lead On." and upon reaching the appropriate seat, you, with effortless ease, swing the luggage up onto the luggage rack (hence the need for good health), raise your hat3, smile, and disappear into the train.
This is the important lesson. You must use your charm generously, as we have seen in the previous lesson, but without leaving the tiniest obligation behind you. The charmee must have no thought that she/he is expected to reciprocate in any way.
The bounder, the offensive charmer, will want to find a way to benefit from his excessive politeness, his attempt at charm, by passing by the young lady's seat a couple of times, purportedly en-route to buffet car, telephone or long lost Auntie Hilda in the next carriage in the hope of engaging her in conversation. Spurn such thoughts. Politeness is not charm, not the same thing at all.
The definition we seek is proving elusive. In an attempt to illuminate further, it may be constructive to provide a list, for guidance.
|Possessing Charm||Lacking Charm|
|Sean Connery||Silvester Stallone|
|Julie Christie||Glenn Close|
|Audrey Hepburn||Elizabeth Taylor|
|James Stewart||James Cagney|
Does that make it clearer?
A Little Controversy
The likes of, for example, Meg Ryan or Goldie Hawn, Cary or Hugh Grant might be thought to belong on the left side of the table, but they, surely, are working to a different agenda. They are users of 'charm' as a means to an end. They want something, even if it is only your attention or your goodwill. They are cads. A truly charming person is interested only in lightening another's day, and is not looking for response. So, the final lesson for now is that charm must be used for its own sake, otherwise it is ingratiating.
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/cafe/picture. A misapplication of the word. Substitute 'pretty' or 'full of character' or 'nice'.
Hang on a minute, though. A plimsole can be charming, trainers are not, Jeans are rarely charming, Capri pants usually are. Perhaps we are missing something here... Wait! The charming Mr Henri has the answer, objects don't have charm, they have vra-vra-vroom.
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!