It is still the practice of young people, and some not so young, to go to bars in order to find someone to date. This works sometimes. It is possible to meet someone for the first time while working, or walking in a park, or in any other setting; but bars are difficult. They are crowded, noisy and raucous, uncomfortable, and filled with people who are drinking. Although these men and women may have come to the bar with the purpose of finding just the right person to date, and perhaps marry, they are not optimistic. They are, for the most part, cynical. The men tell me they think the women are there to cadge free drinks and ridicule anyone who comes up to them. The women, as has often been reported, feel that they are in a “meat market.” They are examined rudely on the basis simply of the way they look; and they are likely to feel that they do not look their best. In that setting it is difficult for anyone to make a good impression.
But nowadays most men and women who are interested in dating have probably communicated a number of times before they actually meet. Or they may have met very briefly at work or in some other social setting which did not allow them to do more than exchange telephone numbers. Or they may have spoken to arrange a blind date on the recommendation of friends. More commonly, they have texted over the internet at least a few times and spoken just a little before getting together for coffee or for a drink. Sometimes they have seen pictures of each other. But they have not had a chance to present themselves in a way that would allow each to get to know the other. Naturally, when that happens—on that first date-- each person wants to make a good impression.
They want to present themselves in a good light. They want to appear to be the kind of person everyone is attracted to. One man, I remember, asked my advice. I will call him Albert.
“I sort of think I would like to be like Cary Grant, at least a little bit,” Albert told me. (This was some time ago. Cary Grant was a movie actor from Albert’s time and afterwards, even before—but not now.)“He’s got that poise and that smile. He’s cool, and he knows just what to say. My mother says he’s got charm. I practice sometimes in front of the mirror, but to start with I don’t look like Cary Grant….My mother says that it is true that Cary Grant has charm and wit; but that I should just aim for being myself. What do you think?”
I hesitated for a moment “Are those the only two choices?” I asked him finally.
Ordinarily, for most purposes, I recommend someone being open and straightforward, “being oneself,” I suppose. But Albert was not always, not entirely, appealing. He was disheveled and smelled just a little. His conversation centered too exclusively on things his mother said and on his hobby, building model airplanes.
“Perhaps it might be possible to make small alterations,” I said to him, “and still be the person you are.”
Cary Grant, I agreed, was too hard to emulate. Even Cary Grant complained about the burden of “being Cary Grant” all the time.
Being charming is, in general, very hard. I have noticed over the years only a very few who were so charming, I found myself watching them and wondering how they were doing it. The first was a well-known psychiatrist, who was said to be “charismatic.” It was at a cocktail party. We spoke briefly, and I found myself watching him later on from across the room. What I saw observing him I saw also in those others who were charming. This is what I noticed: he was tall and good-looking, I thought, but not remarkably so. He would not have been singled out in that company as being particularly handsome. He was sitting and talking to two young women. He was sitting forward in his chair and laughing from time to time. And he was listening. Attentively. First to one of the women and then the other. He smiled at them. He seemed to concentrate remarkably on whichever one he was talking to, and listening to—first one, then the other. When one of the women said something, he responded quickly and then listened. I could not hear anything he said, but I could see that the women were enthralled.
He was not distracted by anyone else in the room. He did not look at anyone else. He and the women were focused entirely on each other. They were like musicians, playing together, a song I could not hear from across the room
I once saw two such charming men together at the same time. It was in the green room of the David Letterman Show, when the show was on in the morning. Two of the guests were Charles Aznavour, a French singer I had not heard of previously, and Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxer. I was there to say something about phobias, but I was distracted from rehearsing in my mind what I planned to say by the two gentlemen sitting on opposite ends of the room. They were talking to the young women attending us, and glowing, The women were fascinated.
Let me say something about the young women who attend to guests and to other activities on the set of television shows. I ran into them at first in the early days of television, when my brother was a director; and I had come to watch. They were called “script girls” in those days; and they were the hardest women in the world to impress. Consider the women who worked on the Letterman show. Every day a different celebrity came by, one after the other—a famous comedian, or a prominent politician, or a well-known actor, followed by a famous writer, and so on. And so what? They drank coffee. They used the restroom, like all the others and like everyone else. They primped in front of a mirror and seemed just like many ordinary people to be concerned about their appearance. So, I was startled to see three of these women in transit around these two gentlemen-- Aznavour at one end of the room, and Leonard at the other. They were lit by the glow of these two charming men, like satellites in orbit about two rival and parallel suns.
What were these men doing? They were conversing with the women; but I did not notice, or do not remember, what they were saying. It was just as it had been before with the charismatic psychiatrist: They smiled. They laughed a little. They listened intently. They seemed, each of them, entirely interested in the person they were talking to at each moment.
When I think back on the charming people I have met, I realize they were all men. Are there charming women? Of course, but I think I fell under their spell. I could not sit at a respectful distance and watch them dispassionately and try to discover how exactly they went about charming the men around them. I was carried away.
So, what does it take to be charming? First of all, I think it is helpful, although not absolutely necessary, to be attractive physically. Secondly, I think that person must want to please. Concentrating intently on another person makes that person feel special. And that is what it means to be charmed.
So, should someone go out on that first date trying to be charming? No. It is too hard. It requires a focused attention that is hard to maintain for any length of time—unless someone is falling in love. We can observe a young couple in a restaurant completely oblivious to everyone and everything except to each other. They are entranced. But to behave like that to a stranger is too hard.
Struggling to be witty is impossible. Being witty requires maintaining an odd distance from whatever is being discussed. Instead of just conversing, one is critically standing apart from what is being said. It is a somewhat jaundiced point of view which cannot be assumed by an effort of will alone. Even those who are, indeed, witty, are not witty all the time and cannot call forth witticisms at will. Trying to be funny leads people into making puns and telling jokes, both of which tend to stop conversations. If someone does have an apt anecdote to tell, as Lincoln seemed to have not infrequently, it should not be followed by another joke. Joke-telling reduces the conversation to stand-up comedy, which is annoying in most social settings even if the raconteur is good at it.
In the end, Albert’s mother was probably mostly right: being yourself will turn off some people, but will turn on others. Dressing informally, for instance, will turn off some people, but will turn on others. Being quiet and demure may seem uninteresting to some people, but will surely seem appealing to others who might interpret cheeriness and a readiness to speak as being loud. When looking for a job, I think it makes good sense to try to be the person the employer is looking for. When trying to find someone to marry, I think it is reasonable not to engage in such a pretense. After all, you do not want to have to pose forever. Whoever you are, there is someone out there who will take one look at you and think you are terrific. That is the person you want to settle down with.
But it is surely true that by making a special effort, someone—anyone—can seem more attractive.
Don’t assume an unattractive pose. That means that men should not pretend to a macho style where they strut about and assume a truculence as a way of looking strong. Women should not seem aloof. It comes across as snobbery. Neither should either men or women pretend to sophistication. I think even those who have been around the world a few times and know a great deal about a great number of things should not present themselves that way if possible. It is intimidating rather than appealing.
Don’t sit back passively and wait for someone else to make the first move. Being interested in someone makes you seem more interesting. Waiting for something to happen usually leads to nothing happening. A man approached by a woman will not think that woman is desperate, he will think she likes him. Do not try to seem cool and distant.
Of course, do not drink too much. Do not enter into arguments with strangers. And do not treat the person you are speaking to as if he/she is the person who just treated you badly in the relationship you are just now recovering from.
I think everyone can try to be friendly. Aim for friendly. Friendly means being interested in the other person—which should not be too hard. People are interesting. It means being open and not critical of the other person or of people in general. It means being willing to listen. Being friendly puts the other person at ease.
The appeal of charming and witty wears off after a time, I think. Couples married for a while do not usually spend much time trying to charm each other. But being friendly lasts. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog