Charmed, I’m Sure

The word charm is gradually falling out of favor.  Ask a younger person to explain its meaning, and chances are you’ll hear a reference to a trinket on a bracelet, or, a breakfast cereal.  To describe the term when used as a verb, let alone in the sense of an attribute or characteristic, is to invite a considerably greater investment of effort.

No small part of the problem inheres in the term’s ambiguities, and the resulting ambivalence it engenders.  In its verb form, to charm is transitive.  Its effect is to please, win favor, or delight as if by casting a magical spell.  To be called charming, especially when charming is preceded by thoroughly, is generally viewed in a complimentary light, whereas to call someone a charmer is to issue a cautionary note.  If you’re familiar with the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is charming, while Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) is a charmer.  The word charming is often coupled with prince. Charmer, on the other hand, is often preceded by snake.

Americans have generally regarded charm with a certain wariness.  Perhaps it is a vestige of the Puritanical fear of surrendering moral purity to the temptations of the flesh.  Satan, after all, is known as The Great Seducer. Whether the charmer is personified in the likes of Don Juan, P.T. Barnum, or the infomercial pitchman, Americans tend to view charmers as con-men and Lotharios, even as we love being charmed by them.

But lest we forget, charm has a definite upside.  When we speak of someone, or something being absolutely charming, completely charming, or totally charming, we remove all ambivalence from the term, and are left with something pure, good, and uplifting in mind.  Not all magic is black magic, and we often speak of magical effects in the most positive of senses.  If I ask you to think of the most charming person you know, chances are you will call to mind someone you like and respect, rather than a sociopath.

If we were to expand the thought experiment by bringing to mind the most charming people we know, we might ask ourselves what attributes these people share in common.  I’ve actually been thinking about this recently, and have come to the conclusion that those I regard as completely charming possess (at a minimum) the following three qualities: They are uniformly and consistently polite; they are skilled at the art of conversation; and, they possess tramsparently positive dispositions.

It is said that manners never go out of style, whereas evidence to the contrary abounds.  Such rudimentary considerations as saying please, and thank-you appear to be increasingly burdensome.  People seem to have difficulty greeting one another and exchanging simple pleasantries.  Our commitment to contemporary forms of egalitarianism has, apparently, suppressed behavior that was once second-nature, such as volunteering one’s seat on a bus to an elderly person or pregnant woman.  Learning table etiquette requires families to do something that has fallen out of vogue: actually eating meals together.  And then there’s the impact of today’s popular culture.  I admit to being a fan of The Sopranos, but we’ve traveled many a mile from Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet to, “So what? No [expletive] ziti now?”

Conversation as an art form has given way to texting and tweeting.  Feelings are made manifest through the selection of emoticons.  People have, increasingly, lost the ability to help others feel psychologically at-ease in face-to-face interactions.  We appear to have forgotten how to ask questions that invite familiarity without threatening or giving offense. Talking to one another seems to have become more difficult, less productive, and far less fun.

Finally, it’s difficult to imagine a truly charming person who lacks genuine appreciation for life.  The most charming people I know are capable of feeling and expressing gratitude for things both large and small, disposed toward happiness, and able to sustain a positive disposition without denying pain, loss, obstacles and setbacks.

Some may contend that the sort of charm I have in mind can’t be taught.  Others may take an opposing view, designating parents as the primary teachers and modelers of the attributes in question.  In either instance, I hope one would agree that schools have a role to play in encouraging, enabling, and evaluating these and other aspects of behavior that can and should be viewed as essential components of relational ability.

Ask any successful person the secret of his, or her success, and you’re almost bound to hear some form of, it’s all about relationships. Helping our students become thoroughly charming people will not only be of inestimable value to them, it will make the world a better, kinder and happier place for us all.

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