My husband and I have a long-standing argument over the value of charm. According to him, one should be wary of the charming person, watch out for the flatterer (though I have seen him charmed by flattery as we all are), and be suspicious of smooth talk.
I take more of the French view. They have a wise saying: “Hypocrisy is the bow that vice pays to virtue.” And I’ll take that bow. Good manners, even a little flattery, a cheerful, good-humored attitude to life’s difficulties make things easier it seems to me.
And charm can be spontaneous surely, particularly the charm of the small child, the adolescent. Can I dog be charming? It seems to me that they can.
But my husband tells me he told his two small boys that if a dirty and uncouth homeless person should approach them in the park not to be afraid, but if a smartly dressed and polite stranger approached them and asked if they would like to come and meet his little boy, they should run off as fast as they could. So who is right?
When we look at the Latin origin of the word charm, carmen, it means song or incantation. The old French word charme means magic, and there is a hint of magic or a spell that the charming person throws over us, sometimes simply in order to manipulate and to control us. It is also true that the psychopath is often charming and uses charm to get us to do what he/she wishes us to do.
I would have to agree, too, that the basis of any good relationship should surely be emotional truth, not some sort of polite patter or simpering sweetness, and the old saying which we heard as children, “Don’t say anything if it is not pleasant,” seems outdated and restrictive today. We encourage our children to tell us their true feelings and we try to tell them our own.
But is there not, also, a kind of narcissism involved in all this sincerity? Is a confession of true feelings always in the interest of the listener? Was my ex-husband, who told me he needed to tell me the truth about his feelings: his love for another woman, his guilt, his suffering, doing me or himself a favor? Would it not have been harder for him to lie, to camouflage and to conceal? In other words should we say all without regard for the other’s feelings? Should we engage in endless bickering and senseless argument? Does not such behavior inevitably erode a relationship? Should we not try to say what will give pleasure to another even if it is not always strictly the truth.
As usual the truth lies in a sort of middle distance, a well-balanced attitude. We need to try to find the way to maintain emotional sincerity without necessarily causing distress; to find some way to express our emotions and sincere opinions to others without hurting their vanity, which might just be impossible at times!
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.