is a funny thing.

Yesterday, I went to a cocktail party benefit for a literacy nonprofit after work. It was at one of these super-swanky midtown Manhattan apartments that one would never see or imagine the inside of if one didn’t go to cocktail parties one had been invited to through some bureaucratic oversight.

Anyway, while feasting on pigs in blankets and offering my mustardy hand to Diverse Impressive People, I caught a familiar face in the corner of my eye. It was a boy I had gone to high school with and hadn’t seen in more than ten years. We hadn’t really known each other in high school, but cocktail chatter revealed an array of connections–the most humorous and oft-repeated was that he is my ex-sister-in-law’s sister’s brother-in-law. (He had also dated my ex-colleague’s ex-girlfriend and graduated from the same college class as my arch-nemesis. The publishing world really is a little too small for itself.)

Cocktail chatter also revealed a very interesting ten-year story after college, including shanghai-ing his way into a journalism career, producing for Gaga (“I knew her when she was 20 years old, Island had dropped her, no one wanted to talk to her, and I said, let’s do this”), and signing some book contracts. An interesting life already, and he’s 28 or 29.

This fellow’s story didn’t surprise me, based on what I remembered of him from high school. My sophomore year, he had spearheaded a school-wide pushback for free speech against journalistic oppression (a fancy way of saying the school newspaper wouldn’t let him publish a particular story, so he did anyway–the paper was shut down, and he corralled a bunch of local businesses to advertise in a new underground paper he printed himself). I still remember his campaign slogan (a catchy rhyme) from the year he ran for school president. He had always been a wave-maker.

When I saw him I remembered this recent philosophizing I’ve been doing on the topic of charisma–what exactly it is, if one can “get” it or if one must be born with it. My definition is loose and working, but so far includes certain steady themes: the ability to be remembered; the knack for being met by enthusiasm when one asks someone else to do/say/think something. Secondary themes (frequent in, but not universal to, charismatic people) include: personal warmth (“What a great gal/guy! We really connected! I felt like s/he was really listening!”); so perhaps ability to listen and retain is another one up there; and propensity to be talked about when one is not present. (Many, but not all, charismatic people make waves in the world around them.)

Any other ideas I might add to this rolling definition?

The interesting part of talking about charisma: Some of these qualities are things you can control, a person you can become. Others are less so. So in theory, to some degree, it’s something you can “get.”

This happened to me a little, this getting. Unlike the fellow I describe above, who has been happily bending happy people to his will since high school or earlier, I am not naturally charismatic. I spent my childhood and early adulthood in a shell inside a cocoon inside a cave of self-loathing. I shed many (maybe not all) those layers over the course of years, through work and aggressive self-reflection (and a compulsive desire to people-please). Objectively, I think I have some charisma; I know, for example, I’m a social lynchpin. Sometimes people ask me to co-host parties because they want my invite list to show up. (But I’d be lying if I said I’m not always pleasantly surprised when people do turn out for me.) My company always sends me as spokesperson whenever talking has to be done in front of people. (Of course it was really through blogging several years ago that I first realized I even had anything to say, and that people were willing to listen.)

The confidence mask isn’t perfect. (Do I want it to be?) And self-diagnosis is awkward (talking about oneself as charismatic feels embarrassing and immodest; I’m writing this post after much belaboring and self-editing and will only end up posting it because I know this is a quiet friendly forum).

But my goal in life is to Make Things Better (however that comes along). And I think charisma is necessary if you want to affect people with your way of thinking. Which is why I keep working on this.

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15 Responses to charisma

  1. This is so fascinating because Curt and I had a long car ride discussion about charisma recently, too. It might have been a week ago. I think charisma is somewhat of an inborn trait while charm can be learned. This is also something I was talking about last night in regards to my sister. (deletes a few sentences). Maybe I’ll keep the revelations of my sister private and we can discuss elsewhere.

    I think I mentioned to you that my favorite Orson Scott Card series is the Homecoming Saga and my favorite book is the last one, “A Memory of Earth.” The books feature a female character known as a weaver, who can see the golden threads that connect people and who has the ability to strengthen those ties or destroy them. In Memory, there is a male weaver, so the power works differently. He knows how to use the golden ties to connect people to HIM. And that, to me, is charisma (setting aside the inherent gender implications in Card’s books for the sake of this argument since charisma has nothing to do with gender…or does it??)

    I wouldn’t say you are charismatic by my definition. I would say you are incredibly passionate and intense about what you care about, and that passion radiates out of you and makes other people feel that same passion and intensity when they are near you.

    • At the risk of opening an unpleasant can of worms, I think the gender point is really interesting. Maybe we still WANT to be affected by men more easily by women.

      (Why did I include the word “maybe” in that sentence? That was obviously specious hedging.)

      I think charisma v charm is another interesting point. Different things, certainly. Both qualities that cause people to want to do things for you. The difference, for me, hinges on the second person’s emotional ties to the favor they do the first. If someone charms you into doing something, you do it for them. If someone has charisma, they (intentionally or unintentionally) make you [think you] want to do it for yourself.

      I’m not sure if this conversation is fun, or semantics, or both. So I’ll stop here.

  2. If someone charms you into doing something, you do it for them. If someone has charisma, they (intentionally or unintentionally) make you [think you] want to do it for yourself.

    Yes, I really like how you’ve differentiated here. I agree! I hope other people weigh in and back us up in this…

  3. Karissa says:

    Charm to me seems like something that’s a bit more intimate. Like you and I are having a conversation and I’m charmed by you, on this one-on-one basis. Charisma seems to me larger than life. Someone exudes charisma in a bigger sense, an aura and air about them and the way they hold themselves in a larger audience than relying upon a personal relationship with someone. No?

  4. JES says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since I first read it.

    A boss of mine, a long while back, once told me that I was very likable — almost but not quite adding, Damn you. “If you’re likable in life,” he said, “people will forgive you almost anything, and even if they don’t know anything about you they’ll tend to go along for the ride just because you want them to.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He himself tended towards the charismatic end of the scale: a forceful personality who Made Things Happen whenever he was in the room — and because the room he was in, usually, was a meeting room somewhere, the Things that Happened almost always required other people to do something. But meetings always ended, and people would wander back to their own cubicles, and share coffee breaks and go out for drinks together; the topic at those get-togethers frequently was what a sonofabitch Mr. Boss was. He was part of their consciousness even when not in their presence, and they resented it. Resented it like hell.

    It seems to me that charisma is something like a parlor trick. The magician stands up there pattering away, and as long as s/he is blabbing and making mystical gestures in the air, we believe that the assistant has been sawn in half. Afterwards, though, we read a review of the performance which explains how the trick actually worked… and all the magic in the air goes up the flue. When the magician leaves the room, we can all agree how clever the performance was, but not without a sense (however faint) of having been cheated.

    Charm (or likability, if you want — by my definition if not my ex-boss’s) works a little differently. You never feel manipulated, because you haven’t been (at least, not consciously). You were just with Person X for some period of time, and… and Things Happened, and wasn’t that cool?

    Charisma and charm: Penn and Teller, respectively.

    I don’t know about you, but I hatedhatedhated all the media talk about candidate charisma during the 2008 election, and the expectation that because Candidate X turned heads when s/he was at the podium, we’d all remain charmed afterwards.

    • I like your take re: magician/parlor trick. “Things Happened, and wasn’t that cool?” EXACTLY.

      Re: politics: you can HATE the media talk about charisma, but it basically plays into your theory exactly, doesn’t it? People blame candidate X for charisma and try to pick him (let’s just call it a “him”) apart, and other people certainly don’t agree with all his policies or (when he’s offstage) have complete faith in him, AND YET everyone votes for him. Because when he gets back onstage the misgivings melt away into a sea of crush.

      which brings us to the next question–is there often a sexualization element to charisma? Is some level of attractiveness required to make it “work”? And if yes–if charisma is a synthesis of (among other things) attractiveness and power–does that help explain why it’s easier for a man to be charismatic than a woman? (sorry, I’m not sure you even agree with that last statement; I was just inserting my impression again.)

      • JES says:

        About looks: sadly, I think yes. It’s very difficult for me to imagine someone like, say, Eleanor Roosevelt being described as charismatic. They’d probably call her something like “a forceful personality” or someone who “naturally commands the attention of everyone in the room,” etc. Getting back to the political example, when male commentators speak of a woman’s — and I’ll just call it a “her” — “charisma,” I’ve always read it as code: Damn fine-looking woman, wot? But of course they can’t say that on-camera, unless they’re somebody like Bill Maher. So they fall back on “charisma,” because that at least would explain the state of hypnosis the commentators are obviously working from. (*cough* sorry, sort of falling overboard into politic opinion here, which I try to avoid)

        I think a counterpart term used mostly for men is “magnetism.”

        …and, thinking some more about this, what about the pre-mass-media-approbation sort of charisma? Used to be (and not all that long ago) that if someone was described as charismatic it meant they followed a particular strain of (Pentecostal) Christianity — speaking in tongues and so on. It referred to those who follow, not those who lead.

        You’re somebody who I imagine knows stuff about ancient Greek (all the while downplaying your own expertise :)), possibly including where this word (this idea) charisma came from, not just etymologically but, um, philosophically/historically/mythologically. Any bells going off there?

  5. curses!!! no bells, but now you’ve made me want to dig out my trowel and go excavating!!!!!! terrible influence, you are.

    • JES says:

      Ha! Of course I influenced myself terribly, too. One of the (unintentionally) funniest elements in the Wikipedia article is the “See also” list of references at the end:

      Charismatic authority
      Charm offensive
      Narcissistic leadership
      Superficial charm
      Toxic leader

  6. JES says:

    This post by Justine Musk at Tribal Writer isn’t on charisma per se, but I thought it was awfully good and dealt with some of the same issues.

  7. mapelba says:

    Do you need good looks to have charisma or does your charisma make people think you’re better looking than you are? Well, if people think you’re good-looking, then are you good-looking?

    Sociopaths often have charisma. If charisma lets you manipulate people, then maybe not having it says something good about you?

    Since I tend to think of charisma as natural–I mean, you can’t help it if you’re charismatic, can you?–I wouldn’t have thought of it as a parlor trick. Trick to me suggests you can turn it off. Was Frank Sinatra ever not Frank Sinatra?

    I think I’m rambling. I’m not charismatic or charming or head-turning. And I’m fairly certain people aren;t talking about me when I’m not there (or even when I am there). Well, I’ll say I’ve had a few moments in life where I felt charming, like being followed briefly by a sunbeam!, but that happened when I felt inexplicably happy and confident and lucky. I wasn’t TRYING to be charming. Maybe I was delusional. Maybe only people on the outside get to decide if you’re charming or charismatic. After all, if you say you’re charismatic, then, you know, you probably aren’t.

    Anyway, good topic. (I found my way over here thanks to JES, by the way.)

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