It's become a synonym for manipulation but shouldn't we all be a bit more charming?

In his new book, Stephen Bayley argues that this is one verbal skill we all should learn

Mention "charm" and everyone gets interested. Often, people get annoyed. You can win friends with charm, but this most delightful subject can also be a reliable way of starting an argument.

Yesterday, I shared a BBC lift with Polly Toynbee to our shared destiny at the Today studio. When I told her my subject, she brightened up and said that the very brainy Isaiah Berlin always made people feel as intelligent as he was.

Was Berlin patronising or charming? He was perhaps a bit of each. Charm makes other people feel good about themselves. And who doesn't want to feel better than they did heretofore? You know you have been charmed if you are enjoying someone's company. And want more of it.

But charm also contains elements of sinister manipulation. The charmer works like a psychopath. Albert Camus said it was the ability to make someone say "yes"... without actually having asked a question. And there is veiled aggression, too: the "charm offensive" has a military character. In his new book on Kim Philby, Ben Macintyre says: "Beneath Philby's golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far, and only on his terms."

And then there is the whiff of eros attending it: to charm the pants off someone locates the subject in its ancient history of magic spells and incantations. Charm gives you influence. The ability to weave baskets has, I am guessing, rarely got the pants off anyone.

Charm is an essential tool, or perhaps a weapon, in the conduct of romance or business. So, who would not want it? One thing you never, ever hear someone say is "I wish I were less charming." Apart from the sardonic response of "charming" to an act that was no such thing (being sick on the carpet, for example), almost every reference to charm is a positive one.

But what exactly is charm? There is not a check-list you can tick. It's more a state-of-mind than a list of specific attributes. To be charming, you need to listen, but not be mute. You lead the conversation, but do not dominate it. You may have a severe lightness of touch. You are in charge, but do not appear so. Self-deprecation is a part of it: but to self-deprecate you need to have a titanium-solid ego in the first place.

These ideas about soft control we acquired from one of the first books of management science, Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528). Here we read that it's always best to let your opponent win at tennis, because that puts you in psychological command!

The English and French are very charming. David Niven and Maurice Chevalier come readily to mind. Interestingly, the Italians have no word for "charm" and need to resort to the French to express the idea. Less surprisingly, there is no German equivalent: the nearest is "zauberformel" which means magic spell. Significantly, someone told me: "Your book will not sell in Glasgow. They don't like charm there."

Perhaps we need to be as sceptical as the Glaswegians: too much charm can become unattractive. Revealing some personal disappointments, the novelist Anita Brookner once said that "any man so charming must be a liar". Indeed, "charmer" is a synonym for cad. Lay it on too thick and charm becomes smarm: an attractive quality becomes oleaginous, deterrent and repulsive. But all human transactions are founded on such nice distinctions.

Charm Schools are a thing of the past, though I am told that one is being set up in Beijing. The Chinese know a good thing when they see it. They know that charm deodorises the stench of testosterone and lubricates every transaction. Someone asked me what should be on the syllabus? I said that charm students should be made to study the George Clooney Nespresso ads.

Charm, by Stephen Bayley, is out now as an ebook (HarperCollins, £2.99) or audio download read by the author (£9.99)

Charming: (adj.) to be alluring or pleasing; to attract or delight

Ask yourself: dinner with George Clooney or Simon Cowell? There cannot be any debate, writes Stephen Bayley. And speaking of the charmless, would they be more successful if less spitting and less spite were involved in their presentation of themselves?

Perhaps Dyson and Coren would be more attractive if they camouflaged their voracious, energy-sucking egos with a coat of respect for and an interest in others. Would Green be even more rich if he were less rude? The great thing about being charming is that it helps you to win. And even if you lose, the charming person still feels good about himself. I think the charmless should reflect on that.


George Clooney
The Earl of March
Hugh Grant
David Beckham
Colin Firth
Lapo Elkann
Stuart Rose
David Cameron
Yotam Ottolenghi
Jony Ive


Lord Peter Mandelson
Philip Green
Ed Balls
Gordon Ramsay
Sir Alex Ferguson
James Dyson
Giles Coren
Matthew Freud
Lord Rennard

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?