Turn on the Charm
1. A Sense of Humor
Charm. It's intangible, ineffable, impossible to pin down. The phrase that comes closest is a French one (naturally): je ne sais quoi -- "I don't know what." Yet we all recognize it when we see it: Think Audrey Hepburn, Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer. Celebrities and politicians may possess charm in spades, but there's more to it than physical beauty or sexual magnetism. Marlon Brando was a great actor -- intense, brooding, exuding a dangerous appeal -- but charming ? Not really. But Tom Hanks, by no means leading-man handsome, is as charming as they come.
That this elusive combination of effervescence and intelligence is so difficult to define may explain why social scientists have paid far less attention to it than they have to more easily identifiable "pathologies" such as clinical depression or social anxiety. But that's starting to change. New research has been teasing out charm's elements, identifying the characteristics common to people who draw others toward them like bees to blossoms.
It's hardly an exact science, of course. Like beauty, charm often lies in the eye of the beholder. (Haven't we all been left cold by someone a friend has raved about?) Still, genuinely charming people nearly always exhibit certain universal traits. Here are the five that experts agree on.1. A Sense of Humor
This tops the list, ranking higher than poise or social ease, according to a new study by John Czepiel, PhD, of New York University's Stern School of Business. Funny people attract others effortlessly: At a party, the person with the largest circle of admirers is the one who's making everyone laugh. This is partly because "humor offers immense physiological and psychological benefits," says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, a California psychologist who is the past president of the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor. "It reduces stress hormones, dulls physical pain, and promotes social bonding."
And humor isn't necessarily innocent. In fact, the most seductive variety is often off-color, irreverent, sly. One of the most popular Washington hostesses of the last century was Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, an indefatigable gossip and world-class charmer who kept an embroidered pillow in her sitting room that read, "IF YOU CAN'T SAY SOMETHING NICE, THEN SIT NEXT TO ME." The likely source of Longworth's appeal -- apart from the guilty pleasure derived from being an "insider" listening to her cut an unsuspecting outsider to ribbons -- was the sheer vitality and candor behind her attitude. Humor often involves an almost-childlike willingness to flout social conventions: Who among us hasn't had fun breaking the rules of staid, grown-up life?
Although humor alone does not guarantee charm (David Letterman can be hilarious, but it would be a stretch to call him charming), funny people are usually highly original, points out Dr. Sultanoff. And originality is a prime element of charm: Truly charming people never resemble anyone else but themselves.
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