four-leaf clover
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You show up at an enormous dinner party, a buffet for 75. Your hostess greets you at the door with effusive warmth, inquires about a mutual acquaintance she met years earlier (now, how in the world did she remember the guy's name?), then makes an offhandedly witty remark that immediately puts you at ease. Her intimate, conspiratorial manner seems to promise: Now that you're here, the fun can really begin.

You start doing your party thing. But no matter where you are, your attention is drawn back to your hostess. She seems to possess a heightened sensitivity to the currents in the room—a wandering but exact emotional pitch. She coaxes out the wallflowers, notices when drinks need refilling, steers a risky political discussion back to safe ground, flirts with an elderly man, engages a 5-year-old boy in animated conversation. And here's the amazing thing: When you and she are talking one on one, the other 74 people in the room turn into extras. You're the effervescent center of the universe. Her eyes never leave yours. Her words seem meant exclusively for your ears. Moreover, everything coming out of your mouth sounds fresh, riveting. Compared to you, Stephen Hawking's a half-wit, Fred Astaire a klutz.

You leave the party feeling flattered, a little bit divine, a little bit in love. Then you realize: You've just been in the presence of what Jane Austen referred to as "easy manners" and what's more commonly known as charm.

Charm. Trying to define it is like trying to imprison fog in a cup or toss a net over a faraway sound. "The capacity to please or delight," dictionaries attempt falteringly. Though charm strongly dislikes calling attention to itself, most of us know when we're in its proximity, even when we're not entirely sure what we're responding to. The early Beatles. Nat King Cole singing "Unforgettable." Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Cary Grant in everything. In real life, it's the breezily self-deprecating guy at work, or your grandmother, the one who always wants to hear what you've been up to.

So what exactly is this ephemeral, mysterious quality, this force that makes it nearly impossible to turn away from its holder? Though there are many different varieties of charm (ethereal, rough-hewn, winsome, etc.), its essence can be distilled into this: a natural and rippling responsiveness to other people, an alive attentiveness to what they want, what they're thinking, feeling, saying, or not saying. Whether their charm derives from a desire to be adored or to put other people at ease or both, charming people manage to make others who venture into their sphere leave feeling like their ideal selves.

In its lowest form, charm wants something—money, sex, a promotion—and knows precisely how to get it. At its middling level, charm is a social and professional lubricant, an undeniably useful quality that helps you, and not the other person, land the job or the attention of the Brazilian stranger at the end of the bar. At its best, highest form, charm is a show of generosity and moral goodness, an extension of the self toward others that permits them to shine. By helping others relax and unfold, charm allows you to shine, too. Unlike any other quality I can think of, it's self-effacing, self-protective, and attention-getting at the same time.

Growing up with parents locally legendary for their hospitality, I was a student of charm on an everyday level and in quick order picked up some of its underground characteristics: Pay attention to what's going on around you. Keep your spirits light (never to be confused with being flip), and don't take yourself too seriously. Be well informed. Learn to think quickly and to talk about a broad, weird range of subjects (the stock market, lizards, antidepressants, foam, Roman history, bad movies). And wit is a plus, preferably on the outlandish or self-deprecating side. My Boston-born father treated all people graciously, no matter who they were or what their background was. My southern-born mother would deflect attention from herself, never letting on if she was put out or bored or annoyed.

Next: Do charming people know they're charming?