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It's frothy, elusive, and leaves its subjects feeling lighter than air (and a little bit in love). Peter Smith explains what makes some people so darned irresistible.
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?

"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.

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