“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad” says a character in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, “people are either charming or tedious.” Whether or not Wilde believed this, many people really do divide their friends into those two categories. Of course, most would deny this and would claim to value kindness or moral principles above charm. In real life, people do not choose their party guests according to how moral they are!
Voice and Body Language
If you wish to be charming, begin by making your body language open and relaxed. Do not cross your arms or avert your gaze. Instead, smile, laugh, and maintain eye contact. Of course, you must not overdo this. The moment someone senses that you are forcing your smile, or laughing too enthusiastically at a weak joke, the illusion will be shattered and they will dismiss you as a fake.
You should also work on your voice. Flat, whiney voices are ugly and charmless. In particular, avoid flat vowels. Whenever you get the chance, chant your vowels out loud, making them as smooth and polished as you can. More generally, keep your voice calm, soft, and clear.
Charming people have goodwill towards others. They automatically look for the best in everyone they meet and will usually find something good to say about them; running other people down behind their back is an ugly, charmless trait. Look for the good in groups of people as well – especially when those groups are the total opposite to you.
Observe someone with charm and you will soon notice how they draw others in. Many people are passive-aggressive, often excluding the weakest, quietest individuals by not laughing at their jokes or by cutting across them when they speak. On the other hand, they will be sycophantic towards the loud, confident bully. Charming people, by contrast, want everyone to be happy and have a good time. Of course, this does not mean they like everyone, but their basic approach is inclusive.
Curiosity and Broadness of Mind
This goodwill is often rooted in a broadness of mind and a genuine curiosity about others. Such curiosity needs to be distinguished from nosiness, however. Nosey, intrusive people are looking for gossip, which is a polite way of saying they are seeking to revel in other people’s misery, trauma, and failure. Nosey people have no real interest in the other person as a person. They just want to hear about their divorce or bankruptcy because it makes them feel better about their own life. You can see the difference in the questions people ask. The curious don’t want to know why someone’s husband left them or why they were sacked from their job; they want to know which films you love, who your favorite author is, and which part of the world you’d most like to visit.
And their curiosity is free of a competitive edge. Some people are so consumed with resentment and jealousy that others are literally afraid to speak in case they antagonize them. No matter what you say, such people will have to go one better. And if they can’t, then they will know someone who can. If you went to college, they know someone who went to Oxford; if your child is learning French, their child is learning Mandarin.
Charming people think differently. If someone tells them they have just returned from a vacation in Iceland, for example, they do not assume the other person is showing off or trying to outdo them. Instead, they smile, nod, and ask what they thought. And their questions will be thoughtful. Rather than just asking how much it cost, or what the food was like, in a bored, perfunctory tone, they will ask whether they chose to go because they are interested in Viking history, for example.
Humor and Self-Effacement
Few traits are more loveable or more charming than self-effacement. But self-effacement is not the same as self-loathing. And this needs to be stressed. People with low self-esteem usually strike the wrong note when they mock themselves – whining, moaning, and making others uncomfortable. Saying “I’m an idiot” or “I’m useless,” with a glum expression and downcast eyes, is not charming.
Charming people are realistic about their limitations. They don’t loathe themselves, neither do they think they are special. They simply recognize themselves for what they are: fragile and insignificant – like everyone else. But, whereas some react to this awareness with gloom and despair, charming people find it amusing. Indeed, they often have a strong sense of the absurd, particularly of their own absurdity. And when they run themselves down, they do so with a smile and a laugh, drawing you in to share the joke. If they fell over during a job interview, or dropped their notes midway through a speech, they will say “oh god, I made such a fool of myself today,” shake their head, laugh and then tell you what happened.
Remember, most people find life a struggle and many are unsure of themselves. Self-esteem depends in part on how we feel we compare to others. This is one of the reasons for the tension that accompanies so much social interaction. People are tense and on their guard against you saying something that will undermine their sense of self-worth. So always be conscious of what you are saying and the impression it is making. You may not mean to show off, but that is how some people will interpret it.
The harder you try to be charming, the less charming you will be. Do not underestimate people – they will soon sense if you are trying to be something you are not. So be calm and relaxed. Do not go into a new social encounter with a checklist, just waiting for an opportunity to test your body language or ask questions and pretend to be interested. If you do, people will dismiss you as a poseur and fake. Just approach people in an open, curious, gentle manner. Be interested in what they have to say and make it clear that you value them as a unique individual.