A charmed classic actor, Gary Cooper (Gary Cooper \\ Everett Collection | Rex Features)

I read an article published in The Atlantic recently called The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men. It was a long, semi-interesting, and quite annoying read. At first, it seems that the author is smitten with the charm of old movie actors, but by the end he likens it to the smarmy and sinister used car dealer. I honestly couldn’t discern if the author was enamored with charm as a social virtue and lamenting the complete lack thereof in current American culture and entertainment, or warning against falling prey to those who are easily manipulated by the snake-oil salesmen.

I also found the article to be considerably sexist and slightly homophobic, as it seems to place the burden of being charming solely on men and insinuates that men whose sexuality is anything but hetero-normative are the only truly charming men. Perhaps that is just my interpretation, but the author does seem to link genuine charm to sexual ambiguity and any correlation to obviously heterosexual men and charm seems an afterthought linked to sheer coincidence. By the end the author seems to be quite contemptuous of what he originally called a “social virtue” — reminding us that, “Charm is charming. Just don’t be charmed by it.”

As an editor, I could happily castigate the seemingly erratic writing, but as a writer I understand what it’s like to have dueling ideas about social ideals, especially something as subtle as charm. Though I found this article to be poorly written, it did give me pause to consider what was and is considered charming in our current culture.

I don’t think we can narrow the concept of charm down to one sex or the other. I think both men and women can and do fail to cultivate the charisma and intellect to interact face to face with one another. We have lost the ability to pick up on the subtle nuance of conversation and we often miss the serve in a jolly verbal volley. (Thank you to my friend Tommi for that wonderful phrase.)

You see, that’s what charm is. It is a jolly verbal volley. Charm is the ability to make those around you feel comfortable, to be empathetic and adaptable enough to be genuinely at ease with oneself while being welcoming, humorous, and perhaps even a bit non-sexually flirtatious in conversation with anyone. It is the skill of engaging in entertaining small talk that can lead to more intimate platonic and romantic relationships. I agree that our current culture, not just men, lack these simple social virtues. Women are probably a bit more able to tap into these social skills, due to often being the more socially aware, sympathetic, and conversational of the sexes, but it is still something our society has failed to continually cultivate. The question we have to ask is “Why?”

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To be honest, I don’t think we can point to a single specific reason. Perhaps it’s partly because we are all so preoccupied with ourselves and our technological fixations that we fail to recognize social cues unless they are in an electronic format. Maybe it’s because we are a society that feigns outrage at every perceived offense. It could be that we spend more time being entertained than entertaining others. It’s also possible to attribute it to our sense of individual entitlement which often blinds us to the feelings of those around us. There are a multitude of reasons our culture might not be as charming now as it seemingly was then, but I can say with near certitude that while charm has fallen behind in cultural evolution, it is a social virtue that still exists, albeit rare and sometimes stunted. It’s just a bit more politically correct now. Which is a good thing. The article above is written with an almost blind nostalgia for times long past. The men mentioned in the article lived in a society with rampant misogyny, racism, homophobia, and very clear gender roles. Their charm, no matter how endearing of that era, would often be considered offensive in current culture. Today we would be appalled if a man kissed a woman the way Rhett kissed Scarlett. Our society has undergone enormous cultural shifts in a very short period of time and we are still on changing ground, so it’s not terribly surprising that our social virtues haven’t quite caught up. I believe it will, though it won’t be as simple to define as conversation at cocktail parties where men pompously crack wise and women giggle demurely over their martinis. It will be more subtle and genuine, and equally cultivated and appreciated by both genders.

Charm is charming. Nurture it in yourself and others, it’s a wonderful social tool for building personal relationships.