Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The puzzle of charisma

So I've been cogitating about charisma lately, trying to decide exactly what it is. Yes, I know the dictionary definition -- roughly, individual charm or personal magnetism -- but let's tease it out a bit more. Can charisma be broken down into specific traits? What is it that makes certain people highly charismatic and others, well, less so? Does charisma spring purely from innate talent, is it a quality that can be learned, or is it a combination of both?

Part of the trouble with determining the nature of charisma is that it is to some extent subjective. For instance, because I have an unabashed fondness for all things adorkable, I consider this man:

Stephen Merchant
to be highly charismatic, while I can't stand the supercilious public persona of his friend and colleague:

Ricky Gervais
Fingernails on a chalkboard, I tell you. But there are plenty of people who think precisely the opposite, or who find both of these men charismatic, or neither. So to some extent charisma is dependent on individual taste.

Despite the personal preference factor, however, there is a thread of similarity that seems to run through the people who are widely described as charismatic. So can charisma then be broken down into a set of specific traits, and is it possible to define any mutual traits of charismatic people? If I trace the behaviors of some charismatic people I know personally, do any patterns emerge?

My cousin, Philip Buck, was one of the most highly charismatic people I've personally known. I wasn't alone in thinking so; as I've mentioned, numerous people described Phil as their best friend or stated that they felt close to him. Phil displayed a number of traits common to charismatic people:

1) He had a genius for making people feel special. Phil was an active listener, asking questions and making thoughtful observations so the other person knew he was paying full attention to the conversation. He made frequent eye contact, smiled openly and easily, and teased without malice. I can't remember a time when he talked down to anyone, in part because he was honestly interested in other people. When people confided in him, told him about their particular goals or dreams, he encouraged them to pursue those goals.

2) He wasn't afraid to display passion for the things he cared about. "Passion" in this case doesn't mean anger or hostility -- it's reveling in the things you love, things that are delightful or deeply meaningful to you. Phil loved living in L.A. and enjoyed showing off his favorite places to visitors. He was also completely star-struck and didn't care who knew it. On occasions when he got roles on soap operas, he would call our family to share the news, and his palpable excitement about the opportunity could be felt through the phone line. Whenever he talked about the things that interested him, his whole face lit up. He wanted the people closest to him to share the joy, and was sometimes disappointed when he couldn't do so.

3) He was a storyteller. Not all storytellers are charismatic, but most charismatic people are great storytellers. Phil had a knack for using the right amount of detail, putting emphasis on just the right word. He had good comedic timing, a slightly naughty sense of humor and a minor ability to mimic other people's voices. As a result, his stories were almost always engaging and fun.

4) He could admit his shortcomings without dwelling on them. Phil could readily own up to a number of mistakes he'd made in his life, but he didn't spend a lot of time talking about them. I'm sure they bothered him much more than he let on, but he preferred to show optimism to others, to make today better than yesterday -- or to use one of his past mistakes as kindling for another funny story.

5) He was physically attractive. Phil was good-looking -- he'd been a model as a young man -- and was habitually meticulous about his dress and grooming; the only time I ever heard him say something that could be categorized as snobby was in reference to his clothes. Not all charismatic people are beautiful, but they usually know how to clean up well. They take good care of themselves, discover their best physical qualities -- soulful eyes, thick wavy hair, a beautiful smile -- and use them to good advantage, while downplaying their less-than-ideal physical traits.

These aren't all, of course. Some other common traits of charismatic people I've known:

6) They are intelligent without being obnoxious. Most charismatic people are intelligent and curious about the world, and they often have specialized knowledge about a particular subject, but they don't need to demonstrate to everyone that they're the smartest people in the room. Their intelligence naturally shines through in their comments and questions.

7) They take time to remember key details. A charismatic person will often ask for your name, and remember it the next time you meet. This seems like a small thing, but it makes such a difference in relationships -- when someone you like remembers your name, it suggests that you made a positive impression on that person. Charismatic people also take time to remember important dates like birthdays and anniversaries, and to send a greeting your way on those days.

8) They are confident without being cocky. What's the difference between confidence and cockiness? Attitude. Confident people have a positive attitude because they know their own strengths and abilities based on past experiences; cockiness is often a brave face people put on to cover the multitudinous fears and insecurities they have not yet mastered. Charismatic people are supremely confident. They do their homework and let the rest go, having faith that things will work out as they should.

9) They tend to leave people wanting more. Even the most charismatic among us can lose their charm by overstaying their welcome. Highly charismatic people know the value of not sharing too much at once or of straining after other people's adulation; because they voluntarily limit their participation, trying to share without hogging the spotlight or wasting other people's time, they usually receive attention without demanding it.

Not everyone who is charismatic displays all of these traits, but I'll bet most people would consider you charismatic if you had, say, at least four of them under your belt. And if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the indispensable trait of charismatics is the very first one I mentioned: they make other people feel special.

Obviously some people have naturally charismatic traits from childhood on, but is it possible to learn to be charismatic? I think it is. Many of the traits I've mentioned could be picked up with practice or assistance. You can learn to make proper eye contact (hint: don't tuck your chin and stare unblinkingly like Bela Lugosi), give people real smiles (that is, with your eyes as well as your mouth), and listen carefully to what others say. You can draw other people out by asking them questions about themselves. You can find out what your best physical qualities are and make the most of them. You can own your passions instead of trying to hide them. You can learn how to tell stories effectively (there are even storytelling classes if you want to get really good at it). And even if you have no naturally-occurring talent for it, you can learn how to retain other people's names and information. But I also think that if charisma doesn't come naturally to you, you have to practice these traits until they become second nature to you, almost effortless. Because, funnily enough, there's nothing less charismatic than someone obviously trying to act charismatic. There is a big difference between taking an active interest in other people and only pretending to do so, and even if people can't put their finger on it, their phony-senses will start tingling.

Now, the big question: is charisma the key to sailing through life? I'm sure it helps, but charisma isn't everything -- for one thing, it doesn't replace compassion, as has been copiously illustrated by charismatic people who are also cruel and manipulative. (Hitler, for instance, was highly charismatic, and he was very good at making a large segment of the German people feel special, but he chose to use his charismatic powers for nefarious and evil purposes.) Charismatic people don't do much good in the world if they don't also seek to cultivate gentle hearts.


natural attrill said...

Just saw your comment on Toby's blog and I wrote you a message here but it's disappeared and I dont have your email.
I hope all is good for you,

Soozcat said...

Hi, Penny! I just stopped by the blog to say hello and see how you and Toby were doing these days.

Blogger occasionally eats comments, which is frustrating... but not so much that I'm willing to transfer this whole mess to WordPress.

natural attrill said...

Yes, we are fine thanks.
Toby has left home, he is doing a BSc in Sociology at The London School of Economics and political science. He seems to be enjoying London/student living! and he's got a part time job as a barman.
He doesnt make much jewellery thesedays, and has only kept on one shop to supply his peices.

Laurence and I are in the process of moving house, to 300 miles away, a place called St Leonards on Sea, it's near Hastings, on the south coast.

How's things with you and yours?

Soozcat said...

We are doing pretty well. Captain Midnight is still working at Cap'n Bill's Wide World of Nerds (aka Microsoft), and Miss V is in her junior year of high school. I write and make sure they're both taken care of, and try to convince publishers to print my stuff. So far they're proving hard to convince, but I need to keep at it.

Happy to hear from you! My best to Laurence and Toby, and I hope your move brings good things into your life.