The only other man in the room

It’s not the same as charisma. It’s more than sim­ply a ques­tion of man­ners. So what, ex­actly, is charm? And how does one ac­quire it? Esquire’s Johnny Davis in­ves­ti­gates.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

This is the story of a charm­ing man.

Re­cently, I had lunch with my col­league David. Af­ter­wards, we went to pick up his dry clean­ing. Walk­ing into the dry clean­ers was like walk­ing into Arnold’s with The Fonz. Peo­ple cheered as we went through the door. Hands were shaken, backs were slapped. One of the staff stopped press­ing shirts round the back of the shop to come out and give David a hug. David greeted ev­ery­one by name, asked af­ter their kids, teased some­one over a howler their team had made dur­ing that week­end’s foot­ball, and we left. I think David’s part­ing shot was a dou­ble thumbs-up. In a cou­ple of min­utes, David had made ev­ery­one’s day a lit­tle bit bet­ter, a lit­tle bit brighter. He’d cheered ev­ery­one up. Ev­ery­one ex­cept me. I felt terrible.

Like David, I’d been go­ing to that par­tic­u­lar dry clean­ers on-and-off for the past five years (it’s round the cor­ner from our of­fice). Un­like David, I had no idea what any­one who worked there was called, let alone what team they sup­ported. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even recog­nise me. Up un­til that mo­ment, I didn’t care less. Per­haps your trips to the dry clean­ers—or the cor­ner shop, or the pub, it doesn’t mat­ter—are like mine. I tend to ask for what I want, hand over my money and go about my busi­ness. It’s not like I’m not po­lite. But that’s about the ex­tent of my so­cial skills with strangers. Do I want to be friends with my dry clean­ers? No, it sounds weird. I want them to take my dirty shirts and give them back to me clean. And I want to pay them for do­ing that. Still: wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of David’s magic?

Ev­ery­where you go with David is like this. Let me ex­plain: David is gre­gar­i­ous, cheeky, Scot­tish, kind, thought­ful, funny, a flirt, puerile, silly, likes a drink, can’t re­ally take a drink, is a chat­ter­box and is re­ally, re­ally good com­pany. (Per­haps, too good com­pany, I used to sit next to him at work and af- ter a cou­ple of weeks, I took my­self off to John Lewis to buy some noise-can­celling head­phones—I wasn’t get­ting any­thing done.) When­ever a new in­tern started, he’d spend as much time find­ing out about them as he would chat­ting to the com­pany boss when­ever they did their floor-walk. In sum­mer, he’d buy ice lol­lies for the of­fice.

Then there’s my neigh­bour Paul. Paul is not like David. If you tell Paul about the best act you’ve just seen at a fes­ti­val, Paul will tell you that he heard them on the ra­dio and they were rub­bish. If Paul sees you tak­ing the bins out, he’ll tell you you’re walk­ing the wrong way—it’s ac­tu­ally much quicker the other way. If you tell Paul it looks like it’s go­ing to be a nice day, he’ll say no, you’re wrong—there’s rain due later. Paul is like one of the Mr Men: Mr Con­trary. Talk­ing to him is the op­po­site of talk­ing to David. He leaves you feel­ing an­noyed. For con­ver­sa­tion to work best, it has to flow one way. Un­less some­one is ex­press­ing par­tic­u­larly ob­jec­tion­able views—and even then this isn’t a given, how many of us have en­dured the cliché of the racist cab­bie through grit­ted teeth? No tip, well done, that showed him… but equally no stand­ing up for what’s right ei­ther— it’s gen­er­ally a good thing to agree with the per­son you’re talk­ing to, even when you don’t agree with them, if you see what I mean. “Nice day.” “No, it isn’t.” It’s not great, is it? It got me think­ing about the dif­fer­ence be­tween David and Paul. And it seemed to me that dif­fer­ence boils down to charm. Do I want to be like David? Not re­ally. It looks ex­haust­ing. He’s left Esquire now but he does oc­ca­sion­ally visit and you can barely get him past re­cep­tion with­out some­one stop­ping him for a nat­ter. It’s usu­ally girls. (David and girls is an­other story. I’d like to be like David with girls.) But

I def­i­nitely don’t want to be like Paul. Paul’s a dick. This idea of charm­ing ver­sus charm­less started me won­der­ing. The idea that ran­dom peo­ple ac­tu­ally like you, re­ally like you and emo­tion­ally re­spond to you, and that, in turn, you re­ally like them. Where does that come from? Is it in­nate, like good teeth or curly hair? Or can it be learned? Is charm ac­tu­ally a bit of an act?

I grew up an only child, and for ages, I was pretty shy. I can re­mem­ber not be­ing able to pay for stuff in shops be­cause I was too scared to en­gage the shop­keeper in a sim­ple trans­ac­tion. (No, I wasn’t get­ting stuff dry cleaned back then.) My mum mostly brought me up by her­self be­cause my dad was away at sea for months on end. My par­ents sent me to a board­ing school pre­cisely be­cause of this—the idea that a fuller ex­tracur­ric­u­lar life would some­how stop me turn­ing into a mummy’s boy. It was par­tially suc­cess­ful: since then I’ve al­ways had a small but re­ally tight group of mates, two or three very good, very close friends. But I’ve never been the most pop­u­lar per­son in the room. I was al­ways hap­pi­est on my own—draw­ing comics, or mak­ing lit­tle mag­a­zines, or por­ing over foot­ball ti­tles like Shoot! And I’m still like that. I’ve got bet­ter at be­ing so­cia­ble, ev­ery­one does, it’s called grow­ing up.

Now, through work, I’m re­quired to go to lunch or evening func­tions where, more of­ten than not, I’m sat be­tween two strangers. At first, that ter­ri­fied me. Now I kind of look for­ward to it—90 min­utes’ chat with a cou­ple of peo­ple I’ve never met? I can do that. How bad can it be? Some­times, it turns out to be a re­ally good laugh. At the very least, I can get through it. But I don’t for a minute leave think­ing that I’ve charmed the ta­ble. But at least I haven’t bored them. (I hope I haven’t bored them. You’d have to ask them.) And I imag­ine that’s prob­a­bly a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence for most peo­ple. (David would have be­come In­sta­gram pals with a cou­ple of them and got off with the best-look­ing one in the loos. Paul would have ar­gued with the waiter and cleared off be­fore pud­ding.)

Charm seems to be a par­tic­u­larly male trait. You sel­dom hear about a charm­ing wo­man. Princes are charm­ing. Princesses have other at­tributes. Charm has a kind of heroic el­e­ment.

Charm seems to be a par­tic­u­larly male trait. You sel­dom hear about a charm­ing wo­man. Princes are charm­ing. Princesses have other at­tributes. Fa­mous charm­ers in­clude peo­ple like Ge­orge Clooney, Barack Obama and Cary Grant. You’ll have no­ticed they all also hap­pen to be good­look­ing. That helps, but it’s not a pre­req­ui­site to charm. Peo­ple talked about John Ma­jor in a sim­i­lar way. Same with Win­ston Churchill, and he was no oil painting. Bill Clin­ton fa­mously “lights up” what­ever room he en­ters. Peo­ple talk about his mag­netic per­son­al­ity. How he makes you feel like you’re the only per­son in the room. Nel­son Man­dela was the same. So was Steve Jobs. Then again, is this charm or charisma? There is a dif­fer­ence. Charm is de­fined as “the power or qual­ity of de­light­ing, at­tract­ing, or fas­ci­nat­ing oth­ers”. Charisma is de­fined as “com­pelling at­trac­tive­ness or charm that can in­spire de­vo­tion in oth­ers”. Charm/charisma is a power that isn’t al­ways used for good. Adolf Hitler, Charles Man­son and Oswald Mosley were charis­matic and charm­ing. Don­ald Trump has ob­vi­ously got it or half of Amer­ica wouldn’t have voted for him.

There have been plenty of charm­ing se­rial killers—John Wayne Gacy from Illi­nois, a con­trac­tor and Ju­nior Cham­ber of Com­merce “Man of the Year” who en­ter­tained chil­dren as Pogo the Clown, had his pic­ture taken with First Lady Ros­alynn Carter and mur­dered 33 teenage boys in the ’70s, bury­ing most of them un­der­neath his house. Ken­neth Z Tay­lor, a pop­u­lar New Jersey den­tist who aban­doned his first wife, tried to kill his sec­ond wife, hor­rif­i­cally beat his third wife on their hon­ey­moon in 1983, bat­tered her to death the fol­low­ing year, hid her body in the boot of his car while he vis­ited his par­ents and his sec­ond wife, and later claimed self-de­fence, say­ing she at­tacked him fol­low­ing his “dis­cov­ery” she was sex­u­ally abus­ing their in­fant child. Dr Han­ni­bal Lecter, as imag­ined by An­thony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Brian Cox and oth­ers, is al­ways charm per­son­i­fied. There’s now a hit mu­si­cal about Pa­trick Bate­man.

In his 1941 book The Mask of San­ity, Her­vey M Cleck­ley uses phrases like “shrewd­ness and agility of mind”, “talks en­thu­si­as­ti­cally” and “ex­cep­tional charm” to il­lus­trate his case stud­ies of psy­chopaths. A more re­cent study With­out Con­science: The Dis­turb­ing World of the Psy­chopaths Among Us by Robert D Hare, PhD, asks us to con­sider that “there are at least two mil­lion psy­chopaths in North Amer­ica; the cit­i­zens of New York City have as many as 100,000 psy­chopaths among them. And th­ese are con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates. Far from be­ing an es­o­teric, iso­lated prob­lem that af­fects only a few peo­ple, psy­chopa­thy touches vir­tu­ally ev­ery one of us.” Doc­tor Hare isn’t talk­ing about some­one chop­ping up wait­resses with an an­gle grinder while lis­ten­ing to Huey Lewis and the News. He’s talk­ing about white-col­lar psy­chopaths: peo­ple who use charm in busi­ness, who step on oth­ers as they lit­er­ally charm their way to the top. Amer­i­can Psy­cho was, af­ter all, a cap­i­tal­ist satire.

All this was mak­ing my head hurt a bit so I thought I’d bet­ter go and speak to an ex­pert. Dr Raina Brands is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Or­gan­i­sa­tional Be­hav­iour at the Lon­don Busi­ness School, and lec­tures in charm and charisma. I met her one af­ter­noon in her bright, sec­ond-floor of­fice, which she shared with one of those com­put­ers with a dual mon­i­tor, and a run­ning ma­chine.

She was pretty charm­ing her­self. She laughed when I told her about David and Paul (“Your neigh­bour sounds very dis­agree­able”) and pointed out that some of what I’d de­scribed was down to some peo­ple just be­ing more so­cially skilled than oth­ers. Then she said that charm and charisma tend to be in the eye of the be­holder. A neu­ral net­work in your brain fig­ures out that such-and-such a per­son is emo­tion­ally ex­cit­ing to you so then you project the qual­i­ties you think they must have onto them. You fol­low their di­rec­tions be­cause you’ve made an at­tach­ment to them.

“Charm is a very in­de­fin­able qual­ity,” she said. In terms of help­ing the species sur­vive, evo­lu­tion has split us into groups: the vari­a­tion in our tem­per­a­ments serves a so­cial pur­pose. One of the ways that helps hu­man be­ings get along re­quires fol­low­ers and lead­ers, so you have very pop­u­lar peo­ple at the cen­tre of a net­work, and other peo­ple who want to help those peo­ple. There is also some­thing called self­mon­i­tor­ing, where peo­ple adapt their be­hav­iour and present dif­fer­ent ver­sions of them­selves de­pend­ing on the de­mands of the con­text. This seemed pretty ob­vi­ous: the per­son you are out­side the pub on a Fri­day is un­likely to be the same per­son you are talk­ing to your mum on the phone on a Sun­day. But Dr Brands said that high self-mon­i­tors were es­pe­cially good at adapt­ing, and were of­ten marked out as par­tic­u­larly charm­ing be­cause of their chameleon-like abil­ity to win over very dif­fer­ent peo­ple in very dif­fer­ent types of sit­u­a­tions.

The key to charm is em­pa­thy. David got along with the dry clean­ers and the of­fice in­terns be­cause he ac­tu­ally liked them and, be­cause of that, he re­mem­bered things about them and asked them about those things the next time he met them. That’s re­ally flat­ter­ing. And it’s re­ally hard to fake. (An aside: the 19th-cen­tury so­cialite Jen­nie Jerome, mother of Win­ston Churchill, once, on con­sec­u­tive nights, dined along­side Bri­tain’s Leader of the Op­po­si­tion Wil­liam Glad­stone and then his po­lit­i­cal ri­val, Prime Min­is­ter Ben- jamin Dis­raeli. Re­call­ing her im­pres­sions of the two men, Jerome later wrote: “Af­ter din­ing with Mr Glad­stone, I thought he was the clever­est per­son in Eng­land. But af­ter din­ing with Mr Dis­raeli, I thought I was the clever­est wo­man in Eng­land.” Dis­raeli beat Glad­stone in the 1874 elec­tion.)

“Ev­ery­body is the cen­tre of their own uni­verse, and you spend most of the time in con­ver­sa­tion talk­ing about your­self,” Dr Brands said. “So if some­body can turn the spot­light onto you, that just makes them more like­able. All that mat­ters is that per­son recog­nises it as gen­uine, whether it is or not, that’s enough.”

I won­dered why women were hardly ever called charm­ing. I men­tioned Bill Clin­ton, that fa­mous lighter-up­per of rooms and Hil­lary Clin­ton, who was seem­ingly un­able to catch a break. “That’s an in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tion,” Brands said. (I felt good about that.) She had stud­ied gen­der bias in charisma and her find­ings were sober­ing to say the least. “Charisma is a lead­er­ship char­ac­ter­is­tic and lead­er­ship is a male stereo­type. Women are not recog­nised as good lead­ers,” she told me. “They are held to much higher per­for­mance stan­dards. Charisma and charm has a kind of heroic el­e­ment to it, a vi­sion­ary el­e­ment which is a very mas­cu­line stereo­type. It’s a very gen­dered con­cept.”

So, peo­ple don’t mind Hil­lary Clin­ton in of­fice, but when­ever she seeks power, peo­ple turn on her (fa­mously, in the last elec­tion, women just as much as men). Be­cause lead­er­ship re­quires so many mas­cu­line traits: dom­i­nance, as­sertive­ness, be­ing a vi­sion­ary, tak­ing power, traits that are seen as in­ap­pro­pri­ate for a wo­man. Dur­ing the lead­er­ship de­bates on Amer­i­can TV, Clin­ton had to keep her cool be­cause she sim­ply wasn’t “al­lowed” to get an­gry— though Lord knows she was goaded enough. Op­pos­ing her, Don­ald Trump could be very dom­i­nant with a very clear, very pa­tri­otic vi­sion—“Make Amer­ica Great Again”—a strat­egy that, as a wo­man, sim­ply wasn’t avail­able to Clin­ton.

Brands ex­plained that Bill Clin­ton can make a joke or a per­sonal con­nec­tion and no­body is go­ing to worry whether or not he’s com­pe­tent, whereas women have to face a warmth/ com­pe­tence trade-off. “As a wo­man, if you’re warm, peo­ple im­me­di­ately start to think of you as not-com­pe­tent, and if you’re com­pe­tent, peo­ple im­me­di­ately start to think of you as kind of a bitch.”

I asked Brands about psy­chopaths. The With­out Con­science book men­tions a list of traits that share a kind of su­per­fi­cial glib charm. Psy­chopaths tend to be ego­cen­tric, lack re­morse, are de­ceit­ful and ma­nip­u­la­tive, have shal­low emo­tions and, most cru­cially, lack em­pa­thy. “Psy­chopaths are of­ten witty and ar­tic­u­late,” the book ex­plains. “They can be very ef­fec­tive in pre­sent­ing them­selves well and are of­ten very like­able and charm­ing.” When one psy­chopath, in prison for a range of crimes in­clud­ing rob­bery, rape and fraud is asked if he has any faults, his re­ply is: “I don’t have any weak­nesses, ex­cept maybe I’m too car­ing.”

Play­ing devil’s ad­vo­cate, I won­dered whether this ac­tu­ally mat­tered in busi­ness. If th­ese traits al­lowed some­one to suc­ceed in the cor­po­rate world, as long as they weren’t at­tack­ing peo­ple with a meat cleaver on the side, in some cir­cum­stances couldn’t this be­hav­iour be seen as ben­e­fi­cial?

Brands looked dis­ap­pointed with

Charm is a very in­de­fin­able qual­ity. One way that hu­mans get along re­quires fol­low­ers and lead­ers: very pop­u­lar peo­ple at the cen­tre of a net­work with oth­ers who want to help them.

‘Charm is mys­te­ri­ous, ro­man­tic and ap­peal­ing; sub­tle but ir­re­sistible. Why is it so lit­tle un­der­stood? Un­der­stand­ing charm is like try­ing to em­brace fog’

— Stephen Bay­ley, au­thor

me. “I would never, ever, ever ad­vo­cate hir­ing a psy­chopath,” she said. “There are ob­vi­ously a lot of psy­chopaths rep­re­sented in the prison pop­u­la­tion but psy­chopaths are also over-rep­re­sented in the cor­po­rate world. And in­ter­est­ingly, send­ing them to coun­selling just makes them bet­ter psy­chopaths. Be­cause they get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how peo­ple think and work.”

In the cor­po­rate world, there is one per­son whom I con­sider a friend, who also hap­pens to be the most charm­ing man I’ve ever met. His job re­lies on it. He is ex­cep­tional at it. His name is James Massey and he is the MD of The Massey Part­ner­ship, a high-end PR com­pany. His clients work ex­clu­sively within the lux­ury and lux­ury travel sec­tor—fancy ho­tels, beau­ti­ful watches, hand­made shoes, Sav­ile Row tai­lors and one brand that makes the world’s finest un­der­pants. You get the idea. His job re­quires him to per­suade mag­a­zines like this one and other glossies, which in The Devil Wears Prada tra­di­tion can oc­ca­sion­ally be staffed by high-main­te­nance and idio­syn­cratic fash­ion types (though ob­vi­ously no one at Esquire, we’re all great), to write about his clients, who (I’m guess­ing here) can be equally de­mand­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally not just high-main­te­nance and idio­syn­cratic fash­ion types but also Ital­ian. It must be a night­mare.

Yet, I’ve never seen James re­motely flus­tered. For ev­ery appointment I have with him, he is punc­tual to the minute. (I know this be­cause I al­ways ar­rive sweat­ing, as the maître d’ is help­ing him to his seat.) He is never less than sharply dressed in a but­toned blazer and pol­ished loafers. His cho­sen mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not the, “Hey, how are you?” email but the hand­writ­ten thank-you note, dou­ble-sided on duck-egg blue card from West­min­ster’s finest sta­tion­ers, and com­posed via an im­pres­sively nibbed foun­tain pen. It goes with­out say­ing that his man­ners are ex­cep­tional. Nat­u­rally, Massey would never be so charm­less as to de­scribe him­self as charm­ing. But I thought he might have in­ter­est­ing things to say on the sub­ject.

“I think charm is putting peo­ple at their ease, fun­da­men­tally. I think it’s about show­ing con­sid­er­a­tion to them,” he told me. “And you have to en­joy other peo­ple’s com­pany. I think that’s key. I think it’s about notic­ing things and I think it def­i­nitely in­volves kind­ness. You need to be as kind, re­spect­ful and en­gaged when you’re talk­ing to a waiter as you are talk­ing to a pres­i­dent. I think one of the worst ex­pres­sions ever is ‘turn­ing on the charm’. It’s a dread­ful ex­pres­sion. It’s false and it’s eas­ily no­ticed. If it’s un­nat­u­ral be­hav­iour it comes across as ob­se­quious.”

He agreed that charm was not the same as charisma. “Charis­matic peo­ple walk into a room and peo­ple just want to be around them and im­me­di­ately they’re the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. But I think a lot of charis­matic peo­ple can be bas­tards—per­haps not pub­licly. Whereas I think charm can quite of­ten be a pri­vate thing be­tween two peo­ple, or a small group of peo­ple.” (It’s a myth that in­tro­verted peo­ple can’t be charm­ing. And think about it: the loud­est per­son in the room is sel­dom the most charm­ing.)

The cliché of Massey’s pro­fes­sion— and surely fash­ion jour­nal­ism’s too, I sug­gested—was the blowhard ed­i­tor or PR bang­ing his or her desk and bust­ing a gas­ket be­cause their ex­act­ing de­mands hadn’t been met.

“I think ev­ery­one has their ap­proach,” he said, diplo­mat­i­cally. “But I don’t think peo­ple do things for peo­ple who aren’t like­able. Not on a sus­tained ba­sis, any­way.” It’s nice to be nice? “Well, it is. I think it used to be very un­fash­ion­able. The days of the su­per-ag­gres­sive Ital­ian PR scream­ing is just not cool any­more. I gen­uinely be­lieve life is too short to be an ar­se­hole. It can’t be a par­tic­u­larly ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to live like that, you know? There’s enough hor­ri­ble stuff go­ing on in the world with­out adding to it.”

Google- search the word “charm” (your jour­nal­ist is noth­ing if not dili­gent with his re­search) and the topic it’s most of­ten linked to is charm schools. Not so much those bal­anc­ing-books-on-heads fin­ish­ing schools the like of which Diana, Princess of Wales, was sent to by her fa­ther af­ter fail­ing all her O-Lev­els, although in­cred­i­bly those do still ex­ist, but cour­ses that prom­ise they’ll re­veal the se­crets to find­ing love. They ap­pear to be al­most uni­ver­sally a) aimed at for­eign stu­dents and b) ex­tor­tion­ately ex­pen­sive. It seems that part of our cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of charm is that it’s linked to the woo­ing of the op­po­site sex; that, de­spite what’s been dis­cussed above, charm is some­thing that can be learned.

Years ago, men’s mag­a­zines like this one used to be full of th­ese kind of tips (re­gret­tably a cou­ple of them still are): how to pull a chair out for a lady, the cor­rect cut­lery to use to eat your soup (it’s the spoon), that kind of stuff. There are plenty of books like The Charisma Myth: Mas­ter the Art of Per­sonal Mag­netism (“The In­ter­na­tional Best­seller!”) that prom­ise the same kind of thing. “Charis­matic peo­ple seem to lead charmed lives: they have more ro­man­tic op­tions, they make more money, and they ex­pe­ri­ence less stress,” writes the au­thor Olivia Fox Ca­bane.

“Charisma gets peo­ple to like you,

trust you, and want to be led by you… it makes peo­ple want to do what you want them to do.” There’s chapter af­ter chapter ded­i­cated to life-hacks and ad­vice, the im­por­tance of body lan­guage—how the MIT Me­dia Lab once did an ex­per­i­ment that con­cluded it could pre­dict the out­come of ne­go­ti­a­tions, tele­phone sales calls and busi­ness plan pitches with 87 per­cent ac­cu­racy sim­ply by analysing par­tic­i­pants’ body lan­guage, with­out lis­ten­ing to a word of con­text—and how to neu­tralise neg­a­tive thoughts that cause anx­i­ety and stop you pre­sent­ing your best self at busi­ness lunches. How to be com­fort­able with dis­com­fort. How to lo­cate your “happy place”.

Stephen Bay­ley, the ac­claimed de­sign ex­pert and au­thor has writ­ten more in­sight­fully about charm. “Charm is mys­te­ri­ous, ro­man­tic and ap­peal­ing,” he says. “It is a sub­tle but ir­re­sistible com­mod­ity. With charm you can cre­ate good sit­u­a­tions and ex­tract your­self from bad ones. The charm­less and the te­dious are surely dis­ad­van­taged in a cor­po­rate world where char­ac­ter out­guns qual­i­fi­ca­tions, where ap­pear­ances mat­ter, and favourable re­ac­tions count. So why is it so lit­tle un­der­stood? Un­der­stand­ing charm is like try­ing to em­brace fog.”

Jokes are never charm­ing. (“A charm­ing man is some­one who laughs at your jokes,” he says.) Em­pa­thy is al­ways charm­ing. So is lis­ten­ing. Never com­plain. Ever. There is ab­so­lutely noth­ing that peo­ple en­joy more than the sug­ges­tion you find them fas­ci­nat­ing. Be pre­pared to say: “Do tell me more about how you did your own con­veyanc­ing on the base­ment flat in Chig­well.”

Bay­ley traces the his­tory of charm, from when “gentle­man” be­came a spe­cific so­cial rank, above yeo­man but be­low esquire. Soon car­i­ca­tures of the gentle­man be­came stock char­ac­ters in Wil­liam Shake­speare plays and, by 1630, books like Richard Brath­waite’s The English Gentle­man had be­gun to es­tab­lish a lit­er­ary and so­cial type. A true gentle­man was one whose per­son­al­ity tran­scended his birth and caste. But Bay­ley con­cludes that charm has as many vices as virtues.

In busi­ness, and in love, the charmer works alone. Charm is one of the great modes of per­sua­sion, a le­gal way to gain an un­fair ad­van­tage, he says, adapt­ing ad­ver­tis­ing leg­end Mau­rice Saatchi’s de­scrip­tion of creativ­ity. The idea of the con­fi­dence man is still ap­plauded, par­tic­u­larly in Amer­ica, where he was first writ­ten about in 1849: charm­ingly per­suad­ing passersby to part with their pocket watches, never to be seen again. Why is this? Be­cause the con­man seems to em­body the highly mo­ti­vated, the self-made man. It’s true: we tip our hats to Fa­gin, that in­spired, en­tre­pre­neur­ial—and charm­ing—ge­nius.

Did my col­league David think he was charm­ing? I phoned him up and asked him. Fun­nily enough, he said, he’d been talk­ing to his par­ents about this re­cently. They’d told him they didn’t know what had hap­pened to him. Up un­til the age of about 10, he was re­ally shy. But David knew what had hap­pened. He’d changed school and be­cause some of the big­ger lads were jeal­ous of the at­ten­tion he was get­ting off some of the girls (girls again, gah!), he de­duced he was in im­mi­nent dan­ger of get­ting his head kicked in. So he learned to be funny, to clown it up with silly anec­dotes and daft be­hav­iour. (His dad has the gift of the gab, he said, so that helped.)

To­day, when­ever he’s got some­thing big on for work, an im­por­tant pitch meet­ing for ex­am­ple, he’ll of­ten be so ner­vous that he won’t sleep the night be­fore. His way with deal­ing with the ac­tual event hasn’t changed since school: he’ll go in and try and make ev­ery­one feel com­fort­able by over-per­form­ing and try­ing to en­ter­tain them as much as he can.

“I turn into the town jester,” he said. The same ap­plies to the new in­tern sit­u­a­tion. He can re­mem­ber what that felt like him­self and he still re­mem­bers who was nice to him and who wasn’t in that sit­u­a­tion. He said he couldn’t bear the idea they might be sit­ting there feel­ing un­com­fort­able, so he steams in and tries to make them feel good.

One night re­cently, he and a friend were in a restau­rant. It was un­der­staffed and over­crowded and their or­ders got messed up. His friend started com­plain­ing so David had a go at him. “It made me feel so awk­ward,” he told me. “’Cos I wanted the staff to feel okay. I said, ‘ You can’t com­plain, you can see the sit­u­a­tion they’re in, they’re get­ting paid 7 dol­lars an hour.’ But he couldn’t see the sit­u­a­tion they were in. He just thought, ‘I’m pay­ing for this.’ And it was the most in­ap­pro­pri­ate piece of com­plain­ing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

That’s not to say David’s be­hav­iour has al­ways been com­pletely al­tru­is­tic. At school, his mates picked up on some­thing they la­belled “The Din­ner Lady Tech­nique”. One Christ­mas, David bought the head cook in their can­teen a box of choco­lates.

“I don’t know if that was charm,” he said. “It was charm in my head. All my mates were like, ‘You’re a bloody creep.’”

But deep down, David knew ex­actly what he was do­ing.

“I was say­ing, ‘ I’m go­ing to get ex­tra chips for the next year.’ And I did get ex­tra chips for the next year.”

Re­search­ing this ar­ti­cle I con­tacted The School of Life, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that of­fers classes and ther­a­pies aimed at de­vel­op­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. It so hap­pened they had an evening coming up ti­tled “How to be So­cia­ble”. “What is charm and how do we ac­quire it?” It asked, and promised to an­swer that very ques­tion. I emailed some­one there who was kind enough to re­ply and say that I was wel­come to come along. She was called Sarah Byrne.

“Thanks very much, Gemma,” I typed back in re­sponse. Then the penny dropped. “Sorry Sarah,” I hur­riedly emailed. Then I added: “I need to work on my charm.”

“That’s fine,” she replied. “Ha ha.”

Illustration by Shout

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