Are you charming?
Do you value it in others?
I do. Only when I encounter people with zero ability — or interest in trying — to charm, do I realize how much I appreciate it.
By charm, I don’t mean flattery or obsequiousness, or schmoozing or gossip or small talk, all of which I really dislike.
And charm, without underlying character and decent ethics, means nothing. But I do enjoy the company of people, of any age, who know that many of us are shy or private or perhaps feeling a little sad or depressed and make it their job to ensure we are happy in their presence. I grew up in a family of people, several of them very accustomed to public attention, who valued this ability and so I, too, have grown to value it myself.
Having said all that — a silent retreat means a blessed break from the need to talk, smile, chat, impress, charm.
I spend a lot of my time and energy making sure the people in my life are onside: friends, family, neighbors, clients, editors, colleagues.
To sit in a room, then, as we do at the retreat, mere feet away from someone — in the meditation hall or at large shared tables at breakfast — and not have to smile, nod, chat. What a relief.
There is a cultural piece to this as well.
I grew up in Canada, a more emotionally reserved nation than the U.S., a place (why?) where we all constantly being exhorted to “Have a nice day!” by people who wouldn’t pull us from a burning building. I loathe faux intimacy, and America’s confessional culture rewards it, punishing people who prefer a slower burn to the sparkly, chatty, engaging persona that marks the verbally facile and generally celebrated.
I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me here.
(How about you?)
Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.
A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.
To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.
I’d forgotten how private I am and how much I dislike being in large groups of people I do not know well. Remaining silent and apart is a welcome break from having to — or feeling I must — charm.