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"You are absolutely fantastic," my mother would say to the telemarketer whose phone call had rudely interrupted dinner, "and I would leap at your wondrous dental plan if I felt my teeth were remotely worth saving." (Her teeth were fine.) But it was during intimate, candlelit gatherings that her charm reached its height. She would lower her voice to a near inaudible pitch, causing listeners to pull their chairs a few inches closer, as if they were being lured inside a gilded force field, even if my mother was merely asking people whether they knew that when lobsters lose a claw, it's gone for good.

From observing my parents and others, it became abundantly clear to me that charming people have an uncanny, almost architectural sense of harmony. They're able to pick out subtle energies in a room—the silences, hesitations, miscues, awkwardnesses—and if they perceive that something's wrong, or off, they'll step in to fill the missing beat. But it's not merely attending to others and drawing them out; it's also caring enough to remember what people say. (People often remarked that one of ex-president Bill Clinton's most famous political gifts was his remarkable memory for names, faces, and facts about people he'd met years earlier.)

Charm, I've discovered over the years, has little to do with background or social class—the Beatles and Cary Grant, for instance, were all from working-class English families—though sometimes it appears inseparable from breeding and good manners. There's an apocryphal story about Queen Elizabeth II and a dinner guest who, never having seen a finger bowl before, proceeded to drink from it. Without missing a beat, the queen immediately followed suit. Is that charming or what? As for the opposite of charm? Narcissism. People who talk about themselves incessantly. People with a stormy, heavy presence. People who don't notice, or who can't be bothered.

Charm, then, manages to be superaware but never conspicuously vigilant. It's airy but not shallow, warm but not fiery, clever but not snide. It's original, unexpected, seemingly improvisatory—well, at least until you overhear your hostess repeating the same enchanting story she's just regaled you with to the couple in the corner. Ultimately, charm has to do with something basic: a genuine desire to make other people feel their lives are interesting and worthy, even intriguing. Because of its indirection, and because women are typically trained to pick up on things more than men are, charm has always seemed to me more female than male, though men, of course, can be just as good at it as women. (Male charm, however, is sometimes associated with slyness, the sort of seductive ne'er-do-well legerdemain that coaxes women easily into bed—oops—or rooks them out of their last $50.)

Do charming people know they're charming? Yes, typically they've been told it enough times that they do. Does charm take effort? Yes, often it does, though over time it becomes a reflex. Can anybody be charming? The simple answer is that charm can't be taught; you're born with it or you're not. Which isn't to say that with practice you can't learn how to simulate hyperattentiveness or adopt an easy manner. But you can't really learn to be witty. Or light. And most people can't be bothered to pretend to care if they don't.

A few months ago, I rented and rescreened the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. There's a famous scene toward the end in which Blanche DuBois's suitor, Mitch, rips the paper lantern off a lightbulb and accuses Blanche of deceiving him with "malarkey." In a way, he's also forcing charm to confront the wear and tear of its own incandescence. "Get real," Mitch seems to be saying.

So what, I wondered as I watched, if charm is only an embroidery on the burlap of life? So what if, compared to curing cancer or obliterating starvation, charm ranks fairly low? So what if charm's innocent ambition is only to bring some joy to a scary, harried world? Though I knew how it all turns out, I found myself rooting for Blanche all the way.

Get what you want from life:

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