Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

  • Music:

The Problem of Charisma

How does it happen? I mean, in kindergarten one barely has the vocabulary with which to form social groups, and yet from the very beginning, we sort ourselves out. We discover "cool" and "neat" and "tough" and "pretty". It's so sudden that one almost has to ponder the nature/nurture question. All of a sudden, some few kids essentially win the admiration of most; some few kids receive the disapproval of many. Most of the rest of us teeter in between the two extremes. This sort of thing reaches a crescendo in junior high, seems to improve slightly in high school. By college, one begins to think that the fatal effects of charm fade away. But in real life, one learns that the ability to please the great mass of people can be a valuable tool. However, I must add the "the tools to move the great mass of people" to Black & Decker keysaws and automobile diagnostic equipment among the things I have virtually no idea how to run.

I suppose living as social animals makes it inevitable that we must sort ourselves out this way; I'll bet paramecia have none of these pecking order problems. I watch our two lhasas establishing their relative roles in our little "pack", and I usually think how different they are in their thinking about group roles than we are. Tonight, though, I'm not so sure we people are so different. I'm sitting bemused by the odd question of just when and how and whom we charm.

If the world is comprised of people who are essentially "good with people" and people who are fundamentally "not good with people", I have always felt myself in the latter camp. By "good with people", I don't mean "good-hearted" or "nice" or, more negatively, "able to maneuver". By "good with people", I mean that simple, intuitive reaction that one draws from people--the difference between "the kid's all right" and "I feel my mood worsening when I see your face". I have never been one to charm the great mass of people. I am instead what I call a "limited tool for a narrow set of tasks". I am good in court, for example, in the stylized mode of persuasion there. I am good with a certain bright, usually quirky type of person, singly or in small groups, who is/are either very similar to or very opposite to myself. I have a certain "small town hick" thing about me, including a very mild accent, which has always made me feel at home among/set at ease certain folks from the same socio-economic groups as the folks among whom I grew up.

But frankly, I would never be elected cheerleader. As I recall high school, I could not get elected president of the chess club. In college, I was president because nobody else would take the job. I will never be a "popular" person. During my single days, I could always date if I wished, but I was not the sort of person people dream about meeting. I tend to close friends, pleasant acquaintance, and to feel uncomfortable if my wife and I do more than one social outing in a weekend. I could never run for political office, or even be a powerful person of any sort. I wish I could say that I was some impressive maverick, but I'm just a limited tool, for a narrow set of tasks.

I don't feel too badly about my place in life. I know, for example, people with that odd "traitorous charisma". These folks seem almost to attract into their lives people who will not accord them the respect they deserve. Some people have the sad experience of patterns of abusive relationships. Some people have the more mundane but equally frustrating problem of never being able to find kindred spirits. All the fight or flight metaphors can tie into this issue. I am fortunate, because kindred spirits seem to appear in my life with an almost Providential grace. I meet the people I need, when I need them, almost as a general rule.

But I do wonder, sometimes, what good old fashioned "popularity" would have been like. I have experienced that only a handful of times in my life, usually in short bursts lasting only a few months a time. I have neither worked to earn it, detected a pattern when I see it, nor am I able to account for why it disappears. I certainly hope that my profession of indifference to it is not yet another of those odd 7th grade "sour grapes" expressions. For so many of us, sour grapes were some of our best conversational devices, as we guarded the walls during dances. I always work not to be one of those people.

But I am intrigued by this notion of charmisma, as I sit here in a strange city (at a strange Mac, for that matter, which, for me, is strange indeed), after a day of endless social interaction. You see, over and over, I find the sample space of people I wish to charm to be a select group rather than the mass of folks generally. I never quite go for trying to be starkly different on purpose, like that old Society for Creative Anachronism chant about "freaking out the mundanes". When I see goth kids obsessed with this type of "let's be different" behavior, I try to mentally work out which ones will be accountants and which will sell real estate one day, as it seems a bit "protesteth too much" to me. I suppose that all rebellions which are not about ending violence, solving hunger or reducing abuse seem a bit too "middle class radical" for me; at least, those which are not just boring chain-pulling or needless fascism. But in my own dealings, I find that less and less do I want to charm everyone. I want to charm the right people, and basically just be nice to as many of the other folks as good conscience and a strong will permit.

But it's an interesting thing--charisma. Sometimes, when it is flowing in the right small circle, it's like a miracle fountain. It's Lourdes for the lonely.
When I have lost it, I feel like retreating, like a "desert father", to a place where I say little but think simple prayers in my head. I tend to value my own contentment above a lot of things, and I have found that I don't need to charm that many people to preserve my own contentment. But perhaps my approach is wrong.

Maybe charm is one more tool one must use to make positive things happen. Maybe it should be used, like some benign One Ring, for good. I don't like the notion of that, though. Maybe charm is just a helpful set of skills we all need to learn; I love "How to Win Friends and Influence People", the old Dale Carnegie book about how a nice smile, and kind word, and sometimes talking about someone other than yourself could help you change the world. But even that seems too much like "turn this wrench and the cornucopia of popularity showers you with fruit".

But as I go through life, I notice how important it is that some few people like me, and yet how the liking of others, though mildly desirable, would not make me alter one iota even the least of my personality flaws. I suppose, sadly, that the person I want to charm the most is myself. I can't seem to figure out how to charm me, and still charm enough of the other people. What a selfish problem to have.

But have you noticed how much fun we can have in this corner of the playground?
Sure, we aren't necessarily the lookers; indeed, those of who do look good are almost self-conscious about it. We don't get in the dodge ball games; or, to be fair, we are allowed in, and then we are the dodge ball targets. We rarely get the most money or the most toys or the nicest doses of pure unrestrained power. But we do have the nicest chats, and we do live the coolest lives, and, heck yes, we do all charm each other. Those grapes may indeed be sour, but they make a very nice tart. They charm the heck out of me.

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