Viewpoint: Should charm be taught in schools?
- 13 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
If "charm" helps people get on business and in their personal lives, is there a case for teaching it in school, asks Stephen Bayley.
Charm, as Albert Camus knew, is a way to get someone to say "yes" without having to ask a question. So it's surely something worth studying. Why not at school?
The very last remark on my own school report came from a sardonic, beetle-browed master who had despaired of ever getting me to take anything seriously. Bereft at my determination to be cheerful and my reluctance to get on with grim Latin subjunctives, he wrote: "Charm alone will not get him through."
It was meant to be a rebuke, but I took it as a challenge. Mind you, many years before, the very same school had told John Lennon he had "no future whatsoever". Seems my old school was in error on both counts. Lennon's future changed the world of subjunctives and, as for me, it seems I have done rather well out of charm alone. None of it I learned at school.
Given what an effective tool it is in communications, it is astonishing how few politicians of any stripe possess much charm. With many, the charm factor is not positive at all. In fact, I'd guess if you spent more time in Westminster you would start working on calculations that showed media profile to be in inverse proportion to the ability to be charming.
The performance - not to mention the attractiveness - of government and opposition front benches could be radically enhanced if they were all forcibly enrolled in a modern charm school. Why? They would win more arguments, but more pleasantly. And we would like them more - charm being a nice disguise for angry ideas. An added advantage is that charm deodorises the rank stench of testosterone.
Charm is not the same as charisma. The hissing, spitting and maniacally gesticulating Hitler had charisma in spades, but - at least if popular reputation is anything to go by - lacked the more elusive commodity that is charm. A charming person takes an interest in you, laughs at your jokes and is never intrusive or overbearing. Certainly, he makes you feel good about yourself.
He may have his own agenda, but it is, or at least seems, subservient to yours. True, the charmer might also be a liar, but I never said that this was a morally uncontaminated property. The great thing about the charmer is, he rarely loses. And if he does, he loses with style and grace. No wonder politicians have so little of it. No wonder they need more.
But charm remains maddeningly difficult to define, but ever so easy to detect, especially in its absence. There's never much doubt about who's charmless. Perhaps it has about it a whiff of Eros which is maybe why it was so alien to my schoolmaster. My argument is that, so far from mocking it, charm should be on the curriculum for all of us.
But can charm be taught, like dentistry or writing code or mending punctures, or is it an accident of inheritance like blue eyes? Perhaps it is a bit of each. Certainly, the Chinese appreciate it. A charm school will soon open in Beijing, so that China can be even better equipped to conquer the world fortified with a smile and a pleasing wink or nudge.
Details of the new Beijing charm school have not yet been released, but one can almost imagine them dutifully studying Cary Grant movies or reading PG Wodehouse. There would perhaps be fieldwork where students are required to enter a noisy party and make immediate friends. Possibly, they might work on selling deep freezers to the Inuit. Study of George Clooney coffee advertisements would be compulsory.
If I opened a London charm school, how would it be taught? A good plan might, to placate my schoolmaster (who taught Latin), start with a study of classical rhetoric and its three-part structure. The first was ethos. This is where the speaker presents his credentials as an honest man. So, I approach you at a party and offer you a salted nut and a winning smile and a polite inquiry about your glass. That's ethos.
Second is pathos, the way to make an emotional appeal. So, having finished with the nuts and refreshed your glass, I wonder how you are coping with the dreadful weather. Third is logos, the practical argument when an offer of some substantial sort is made. Perhaps you would like dinner at a little place I know? Or to buy some of my injection-moulded plastic draining conduits?
Charm is an essential tool for survival in the worlds of business and love. In personal life it makes everything more pleasant. In business life, it makes you more effective. And in political life, charm would help prevent all present at Prime Minister's Questions going purple and spluttering. So what else would a modern charm school actually teach? Well, you can probably forget about the old books of manners - Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, for example.
Instead, it would attempt to get to the essence and in doing this would subvert all the lazy old assumptions which still hobble effective education in this country. Charm is not just a matter of fluttering your eyebrows and asking, "another glass of Chenin Blanc and a wasabi pea, Your Majesty?", but of mastering the technical disciplines of communications.
So, if we taught charm at school it would involve several different courses. First would be critical perception. How do you analyse your responses to a person or a place? Second would be situational analysis - the critical path through the circumstances you find yourself in.
Third, a masterclass in literacy and articulacy. It's essential to know how to use words because charm is never mute. Find good words and use them well. Finally, anxiety management. Charmers are many different things, but they are always attractively... relaxed. And this is a quality they confer happily on all in their circle. Charm makes everything better.
When you have been taught all of this, you would know how to disarm a cross person. You would be better able to win an argument or a deal. You could sell ice to the Inuit. You would be admired because you can liven up a dull meeting or a boring party. You would like yourself more and so too would everybody else.
Charm school would teach these disciplines and, suddenly, the old curriculum would seem pitiably redundant. Graduates of charm school would be emotionally and intellectually superior beings, never upstaged by circumstance, embarrassed by accidents or short of anything amusing to say.
But why keep this as a privilege? Democratise charm through the educational system and a truculent, dissatisfied population would become easy-going, yet ambitious. Competitive, but sensitive. Confident, but considerate. Articulate, but good listeners too.
When you think about charm in all its meanings, you find a description of every sort of competitive advantage. Charm makes you better at business and better with people. My knowledge of subjunctives failed long ago and my old schoolmaster has now joined Virgil and the subjunctives across the River Styx. God rest his soul, but he was wrong and I was right.
Charm alone will get you through. We don't need less charm, we need more.
Stephen Bayley is the author of Charm