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.
The Earl of March
Lord Peter Mandelson
Sir Alex Ferguson