During a lifetime, each of us meets an uncountable amount of people. Some with whom we walk for quite a while, crossing bumpy paths and reaching ups and downs of relationships we haven't known about before. And there are others, ones with whom we did not share a lot of time and who have never been, and still are not, a big part of our lives. But among the latter, there are two kinds: The ones who we have a hard time even remembering their face or name and the ones who we remember, who had that special thing, that spark, that recognizable feature which made them so not normal that we kept them in mind.
What is it that makes some people sticking in our minds? I am obviously not talking about people who are special to us, with whom we've shared special experiences or just spent a lot of time with. I am talking about that one of a kind class mate no one really was friends with, but whose name was commonly known, about that one weird boss you hated and admired at the same time and about professors who we never met outside of university but whose lectures are peerless, because so they are.
There are also many examples of famous people who share this feature. Think about Marylin Monroe, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Frank Sinatra and Adolf Hitler. You don't need to have a special connection to anyone of these people, nor do you even have to know them in person to grasp their exceptional attitude. They are just special in some way and I want to know what this speciality is, what it is constituted by. Is it what people do, how they express, gesture, talk? Is it what they say, what they know, what they experienced? Are they especially good, bad, critical or funny?
What it is
The one thing these people we remember certainly have in common is that they all are charismatic in some special way. To make sense of that, we have to dive deeper in the realm of charisma.
First, let's try to look at charisma quite objectively. We get an impression of someone being specifically charismatic by experiencing the person. And by that, experiencing does not only mean looking at the person and getting the perception of her appearance, but perceiving how she acts, her behavior. A person acts in some extraordinary way, doing things in a different way than other people and we get curious, perceive her as charismatic. Here, acting starts by simple, almost always only passively sensed factors: gestures, pronunciation of words, eye contact, interaction with conversation partners, posture, candor, facial expression or movement - the list is infinite.
Furthermore, as a matter of fact, behavior can be learned, trained and changed. And if charisma can be broken down into behavior, one can learn to be charismatic. I think this can be true, as I found countless websites pitching the "17 top tips to become more charismatic" or "5 habits you need to develop in order to raise your positive charisma". And it somehow makes sense, because in the end, charisma is behaving in special ways. But not really in the same way like one learns to play the guitar, speaking seven languages or stop biting fingernails after 30 years of addiction. Max Weber described it in economy and society as an "anormal quality of personality, a force not accessible to everybody".
My guess is that people probably are not born with an extraordinary charisma, but are shaped into being charismatic by just having experienced and reflected their lives up to now. By liminal experiences, by having been through suffering, joy, trust, problems, love, by having gained knowledge about oneself and others, may it be consciously or unconsciously. Emotions which have shaped the way one looks at things, the way one interacts with others, they way one shows up to the world. Because they either developed naturally or just really understood that authentically smiling at people, communicating skillfully and tons of other things "raise-your-charisma-guides" tell you, do work and are good to do as an end and not in order to instrumentally achieve something.
How it works
So, to understand how charisma functions and what it is that we perceive when we experience someone as being charismatic, we first have to think about what it is constituted by. When I thought about people with a strong charisma, the features I ascribed to them came down to the following dispositions:
- eloquence and intellect
- self confidence
But even if a person combines every one of these aspects I observed within charismatic people, it does not necessarily mean that this person too, is extraordinarily charismatic. Why?
I think that, even if often there is great general agreement about who is judged to be charismatic or not, it is on the observing individuals subjective perception whose attitude is perceived as charismatic. When I talked to others about the issue of charisma and who they find to be charismatic etc., it almost always came down to reactions like "I wish I could be a little more like her", "I admire his unconditional kindness so much" or other statements expressing that charismatic people obviously have dispositions we lack, but which we find valuable or worth achieving. Charismatic people are the way we would like to be.
That sounds a little gross, to be honest. But when we break it down, it's pretty much it: we admire them, their sovereignty, their ability to easily adapt themselves to every new situation or mood and still seeming (and in fact: being) perfectly confident. They radiate a trustworthy openness and starting meaningful conversations with others comes naturally to them. They are masters in expressing their emotions and at the same time, are able to control extreme feelings like anger or jealousy. Their dialogue partners just get carried away by their empathetic attitude.
Think about what feeling people you find to be charismatic give to you. I suppose when talking to them you feel seen and heard and at the same time needed - because they give you the feeling that you matter. It seems like they find an ideal balance between being aware of the feelings and needs of their opposite and their own needs and emotions. They care about themselves as intense as they do for the person they encounter. They love themselves.
Is it that easy? Charismatic people love themselves, thereby engaging in acts of self-care and thus producing a loving and caring relationship to themselves and the outcome others perceive is their special charisma? It could be. Try again to remember persons you find extraordinarily charismatic? Don't they all seem to have a pretty good relationship to themselves and know who they are? I think there is some truth about that assumption. But if developing self-love was easy, we probably would be surrounded by charismatic people only and obviously, we are not. Maybe it is because showing authentic self-love towards oneself is rather simple, than easy.