As a society, we place a high value on charm; when we meet new people, we love it if they are very quickly smooth, funny, entertaining, and flattering. We are charmed when they seem immediately ready to jump into doing favors for us. We love confidence, lively story-telling, and a sharp personal appearance.
And it all can be bad news.
This is a hard pattern to overcome. We have been so heavily taught by our culture, by romantic stories, by television and movies, and by popular songs, to fall in love with charm that we are addicted to it. We run after it like children after the Pied Piper, thinking it will deeply meet our cravings. And it usually leads either nowhere -- which is okay, but disappointing -- or into harm.
It's not our fault that we got hooked on charm, given our societal training, but we need to get past it. Abusers tend to be charming. Sociopaths tend to be charming. People with personality disorders tend to be charming. Con artists tend to be charming. Users tend to be charming.
Is every charming person exploitative? No. But charm is not a good sign. We need to do a 180 degree turn in how we think about charm. Our current thinking is:
"Because you are so charming, I will need a mountain of bad experience to convince me that you are actually not a trustworthy person."
We need to switch this to its opposite:
"Because you are so charming, I will need a mountain of good experience to conclude that you are okay."
In other words, charm should count against the person in deciding whether to trust them, not for them. If we would practice this, we would often save ourselves from an abusive relationship, from people who steal our money, from bosses who turn out to be terrors, from nightmarish housemates, and from other situations of harm that we find ourselves sucked into.
Why is charm a warning sign? First of all, developing and maintaining a charming exterior takes a lot of work all the time. People who choose to put that much exaggerated effort into how they present themselves are often doing so because they have something to hide. They move through the world taking advantage of people, so they need to put that way of operating in a package that looks appealing or everyone would run away from them. Exploiters tend to be charmers.
Second, the other most common reason for people to be so focused on putting forth an exaggeratedly powerful positive image is that they deeply hate themselves (way beyond the typical kinds of self-esteem issues that we all struggle with). They are convinced, largely unconsciously, that anyone who saw who they really are would despise them and want nothing to do with them. And as a result they have developed a psychological condition known as a personality disorder. This self-hating charmer is not meaning to take advantage of people, but ends up doing so anyhow (for a complex set of reasons -- I'll write about personality disorder and how it works another time). If someone with a personality disorder plays a key role in your life, that can be as stressful as dealing with an abuser or a sociopath.
(By the way, sociopaths are considered to have a personality disorder, but I choose to put them in a somewhat separate category, because they know they're using people, and they just don't care.)
And people can have mixtures of these issues; for example, there are abusers who have personality disorders (although most don't even though they may seem like they do).
So what's the solution? Here are a few things we can do:
* Be wary of charmers. Keep one hand on your wallet. Listen carefully to your own inner voices and warnings, and get to know the person gradually, watching their behavior. Stop respecting and admiring charm.
* Look for a different set of qualities in people, instead of charm. Look for sincerity, dependability, good listening, and an ability to share the spotlight (not having to always be the center of attention). Look for an ability to take feedback and realize when they have made mistakes. Look for flexibility. Look for deep kindness over time (not just big generosity right now, which is part of charm). Look for a person who has successful relationships with (healthy) friends and relatives that have held up for many years. Look for substance.
* Look for people whose entertaining qualities are a little subtler. There are many people who are tremendous fun, have great senses of humor, or are quite uninhibited, but it doesn't all come pouring out at once the second you meet them.
* Look for people who aren't overly dramatic. The drama-junkie is entertaining at first, but will bring a lot of bad drama into your life that you don't need.
* Stop expecting romance right at the beginning of a dating relationship. Meaningful, satisfying romance takes a while to build. The guy who is instantly romantic is often a guy who can't really make friends with a woman or can't take women seriously as people. The most romantic first dates rarely seem to lead to the most romantic relationships.
There are so many great people in the world. But to find them, we sometimes have to change where we're looking. Some charming people turn out to be genuinely great, but so often they don't. Keep your eyes open and look for people who have something deeper and more genuine to offer.