I’ve always been fascinated by what makes certain people charming. The word is used too freely, but I am careful with attributing it to some very specific cases. It is different from other terms used alternatively, like ‘magnetic’, ‘hypnotic’, even ‘attractive’. Those are more common, as is the case of those with superficial charm – an interesting behavioural pattern by itself. People in history identified as cases of ‘cult of personality’ – a great individual in politics etc. with devoted followers – aren’t necessarily charming either. At best, charm is equivalent to charisma, or having a quality that is ‘je ne sais quoi’ – attractive but indescribable.
One such personality that has interested me throughout my life is Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan. Some of you may not be familiar with him, but if you watch even a clip of his, you’d see why he’s just got it. Loads of it. At the beginning of his career in the late 80s, there were enough dissenters. He wasn’t handsome at all, his hair was all wrong, he wasn’t macho enough for what would make a bankable leading man in a popular film industry. I recently watched his first television appearance, playing the role of a cocky youth throwing a tantrum in a police station. His performance was dismal (though he has always proved his mettle as an actor when the role calls for it), but you could see the charm just coming through. He has a number of other things going for him – wit, intelligence, industriousness, talent, personableness – but it is charm that has made him one of the most popular movie stars in the world.
Everything that should have worked against him worked for him – and that is one of key elements of charm. Making what you lack work for you is what separates true charm from superficial charm. Superficial charm is studied, careless, nervous. These are the people who love the sound of their own voice, rattle off all their achievements and experiences endlessly to anybody who would listen, step into any social situation expecting to be admired. The problem with these presumptions is, obviously, lacking basic insight into navigating any human interaction – it is not about making your case, but showing interest in theirs. A truly charming person doesn’t have to be the most accomplished person in the room, doesn’t have to dazzle the people around as if he or she is too good for them. The first thing a charming person does is make people comfortable. Not investigate too much into their lives, or reveal too much about his/her own, but keep the larger phenomenon of what is happening between the two in view – the basic, human interaction.
That’s how you win people over. Humility and self-deprecation are also part of superficial charm these days, but anyone can spot a humblebragger. A truly charming person can do all of these in a delicate balance – their demeanour is thoroughly authentic, or at least, well-intentioned. Everyone can’t be on point all the time, but a truly charming person lives the part, or at least, has conviction in it. There is a thorough enthusiasm for life in them, and even in moments of melancholy, anger etc., there is an honesty that makes them relatable. Nothing cynical or mean-spirited has a place there, a truly charming person is good to have around even when things are not going well.
That is what separates them, and elevates them easily to influential positions. Not all of them may be world leaders, businessmen, celebrities, but they will always be distinguishable by their easy personableness in any social situation. They may not be beautiful or rich or well-educated or the most talented and hard-working, but they’ll be good to have around and communicate with. Of course, there will be people who will either be blind to their charms or resentful of it. But, it will never be the charming person himself who will cause any friction in a group – they might unintentionally be the reason for it. Charm isn’t equal to saintliness, or even a more human goodness. Being good is only one of the qualities that can be expected to be part of the whole – even if it is an ordinary, doable variety.
Another key ingredient of charm is intelligence. Not endlessly curious, neither endlessly knowledgeable, but having the ability to engage intellectually with the social group. A middle-class charming person wouldn’t have a conversation about world economics with the server at a fast-food joint. Not unless the server introduces the topic first, and only in his terminology. A truly charming person is neither patronizing, nor a know-it-all. If this same person who, say, works as an accountant, talks with an economics professor, he wouldn’t attempt to ‘get to his level’. If he doesn’t understand a concept, he will politely ask, and the professor will be impressed by his humility. Social intelligence is having the ability to not be presumptuous about other people in a social situation. The fast-food server may have been an economics graduate, and the professor may not have read the article about an obscure study. A charming person betrays interest in knowing you, not having a pre-conceived notion about you.
It is easy to tell a genuine smile from a fake one. No matter how much you extend your mouth or show your teeth, you cannot dilate your pupils at your will. It is always a reaction to the person you are smiling at, which is why charming people are often said to have a ‘twinkle’ in their eyes. They are pleased with you, whether they are meeting you for the first time, or acknowledging you for opening the door for them. As I said earlier, a charming person has full conviction, an earnestness in their behaviour, which makes you want to be in their company. And a smile is the strongest weapon in their arsenal, one they use to open the interaction, winning half the battle.
What do you think makes a person charming?