What is charm? Oscar Wilde— one of the most charismatic men in all of English letters— believed charm was the opposite of dullness; it’s “absurd to divide people between good and bad,” he wrote, “people are either charming or tedious.” In his 1883 journal, philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Amiel described it as the “quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves” while statesmen Adlai Stevenson proposed “a beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.”
Most of us imagine a charmer possesses an almost magical magnetism: they captivate crowds and their ravishing good looks attract many admirers. The word itself evokes a certain picture: a dapperly-dressed man who regales whole cocktail parties with stories of his exciting adventures; a fashionable woman in a chic black dress and leather gloves whose dazzling wit and irresistible smile instantly make men fall in love with her.
As affable Americans, there’s nothing we admire more than charisma. The movie stars we watch most devotedly, the politicians we most passionately campaign all share this seductive trait. One reason we think so highly of charm is because we think it’s a gift granted to a select few; like those blessed with the ability to sing, the charming have a talent denied the rest of us. Charisma is something you’re born with— as innate as the color of your hair or the straightness of your teeth.
But despite what we may believe, charm is not encoded in our DNA— it’s a skill that can be refined and improved like a kindergartner’s ability to recite his ABCs. In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues charm is a core competency essential to our functioning as human beings, whether we want to climb the corporate ladder or simply seduce our crush on the first date. Below are his three steps to developing this delightful— if somewhat mysterious— trait:
1. be unafraid to be yourself
Courtship always involves some level of convivial but trifling chatter. Rather than have a thoughtful philosophical discussion or meaningful heart-to-heart, first dates most often consist of a superficial getting-to-know each other. As we sip chardonnay in the romantic haze of a candlelit dinner, conversation is limited to a few uncontroversial topics like what we do for work and where we’ve traveled.
Sadly, dating in the digital world is even more surface-level. No longer do charming Romeos woo us in beauteous iambic pentameter; in our shallow swipe-right culture, dull-witted men bombard us with either tasteless sexual invitations or unimaginative “hey gorgeous, how are you?’s”. As a newfound bachelorette trying to maintain my sanity amid such mind-boggling boredom, I got to thinking: what makes one suitor interesting and another a bore?
Though we think some people are just plain tiresome, de Botton would argue a truly boring person has never walked the earth; those we call “boring” are simply too afraid to be themselves. Most of the men who open with a timid “hi, what’s up?” aren’t yawn-worthy bores— they’re just deeply terrified of making idiots of themselves. But the most charming among us are willing to be weird. After all, who do we find more interesting: the guy who resorts to the same lame questions and cliched compliments or the one who is honest about his quirks and his less-than-flattering characteristics? Charm is strangeness, or as de Botton so elegantly phrases:
“At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring. But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring. We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare or know how to communicate our deeper selves to others. The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, with all its longings, crazed desires and despair, is always gripping. When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them. But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream. The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geo-political events. Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science. They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being them.”
2. be vulnerable
In many ways, to be human is to believe we’ll never be good enough. How, we wonder, could anyone ever like, let alone love us? Our nose is too large, our face isn’t entirely symmetrical, our abs aren’t perfectly chiseled. And though we can at times be engaging and thoughtful, we have an equal capacity to be rude and inconsiderate, dull and insufferable.
Because we’re convinced we have to be perfect in order for other people to like us, we conceal these frailties and foibles. No where is this more true than the romantic arena. A first date is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self: rather than display our melancholy and self-doubt, we try our best to appear confident and cheerful, emphasizing our accomplishments and avoiding anything too objectionable. If we stick to safe conversation topics, if we refuse to divulge anything too loathsome about ourselves (that we sometimes suffer from depression, that we’re thirty and still not entirely sure what we want to do with ourselves), maybe, just maybe, our potential paramour will like us.
But what actually makes someone likable? For Mr. de Botton, what distinguishes a disarming person from a disagreeable one is their ability to be imperfect, to be vulnerable. After all, who do we adore more: the date who is wonderfully self-assured, who completely and utterly loves his life and his job or the one who openly shares the more tender, potentially shameful parts of his heart, his regrets and his fears, his insecurities and his self-doubts? As de Botton writes:
“We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us. Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”
3. be a good listener
What do all disastrous dating experiences have in common? A shortage of physical attraction? An absence of chemistry? Too many awkward silences and fumbling attempts at conversation? At the bottom of every disappointing date is a lack of connection. But how, exactly, do we establish a bond with someone, especially someone we don’t know very well?
De Botton maintains listening is essential to success not only in dating but in life in general. We tend to think charmers are natural-born entertainers, those rare men and women who can spin a riveting tale or deliver an impeccably-timed joke, but the most charming people are actually better listeners than speakers. Despite what many motormouth men may think, it’s deeply unattractive to dominate a conversation. I know I find nothing more obnoxious than a man who talks exclusively about himself. What woman wants to endure a dinner where her date barely pauses to sip a glass of wine or ask anything— and I mean anything— about her?
Sadly, many men miss out on the fundamental lesson of charm school: to be interesting, you have to be interested— not completely self-absorbed. If you want to charm your crush, don’t boast about your salary or what kind of car you drive or blather on about your dreams or goals: ask about hers. People love nothing more than talking about themselves.
Not only do charming people ask questions, they actually listen and care about our answers. When they inquire why our last relationship ended, they don’t simply hear what we have to say and move on to the next unrelated question; they ask questions that build off each other. If we reveal we broke up with our last boyfriend because he didn’t share our values, they’ll encourage us to elaborate: what values are important to us? The result? The conversation feels more natural and doesn’t take on the nerve-wracking, palm sweat-inducing quality of a job interview.
In the end, the good listener understands the goal of a first date conversation, indeed, any conversation, is clarification: we exchange words not to impress or entertain but hopefully to shed some light on a potential partner. Do they share our morals? Do they have similar passions and interests? Are they looking for the same things we are?