Anti-Charm - Its Powers and Perils

           It’s the most natural thing: you like someone, you want that person to like you, so you give him or her a compliment. You may point to some quality you genuinely admire. You may comment more generically. The basic idea, though, is to make this person feel good because you want them to associate feeling good with you—you say nice things because you want to be liked.

            If you’re someone who tends to make people you talk to feel good about themselves, or just good in general, you’ve likely been accused of being charming—and rightly so. And charm is considered a good quality to have. But there are a few ways it can go wrong. Attempts at charm can be construed as manipulative, in which case you’ve got more smarm than charm. You may try to charm someone who has already been subjected to numerous, nearly identical charm offensives, in which case your compliments will sound like clichés.

            Charm can also fail in a way that’s more subtle than coming across as insincere or unoriginal. The desire for another person to like you suggests that you have lower status than that person. By approaching him or her with offers of gifts—“Can I buy you a drink?”—or compliments—“You have the prettiest eyes.”—you’re effectively saying, “You’re more important than I am, so I’m going out of my way to curry favor with you.”

            If you send out this signal of lower status, your attempt at charm will probably backfire. By and large, people want to associate with others who are of equal or higher status than themselves. And there are all kinds of negative emotions that get triggered when we’re in the presence of someone who doesn’t measure up. We also have all kinds of nasty labels for people like this.

            The plain fact, however, is that status can be faked. It’s difficult to behave in a way that's incongruent with our feelings, but once you understand what types of behavior signal higher status you can deliberately perform them. And the signals of status are easily—even automatically—mistaken for the real thing. The signals are so powerful in fact that they won’t just work on other people; by behaving as if you have higher status, you’ll begin to feel like you have higher status.

            The sense that you’re raising your relative value and authority is inherently rewarding. So every behavior that has this result is seductive. This is especially the case with anti-charm. Charm entails making people feel good so they’ll like you; anti-charm, then, is making people feel bad so they’ll recognize you as someone who doesn’t give a damn whether they like you or not. In the same way charm often backfires by making the charmer seem unworthy, anti-charm often has the counter-intuitive effect of signaling high status and so making the anti-charmer seem eminently worth winning over.

            I first began to understand this dynamic as a restaurant server. At wits end some nights, I’d get gruff or sarcastic or even a little mean with my customers. Not only did I not get stiffed, as I often anticipated I would, I actually developed some mutually respectful relationships with regulars. It was as if by letting them know I wouldn’t be pushed around I was showing them I was worth knowing. (I like to think my natural wit had something to do with it too.) (Click here for some interesting science that backs up the idea that rudeness or even bad service can lead to bigger tips.)

            Sometime later, the point was reinforced for me when I read Neil Strauss’s book on pickup artists, The Game. A useful strategy for arousing an attractive woman’s interest, it turns out, is to upset expectations and say something that, while not overtly insulting, isn’t at all complimentary. “Nice nails—are they real?” Or “That wig is amazing.” As the interaction proceeds, you continue giving her signs that you’re not interested in her, prompting her to put increasing effort into getting your attention. She’s a beautiful woman after all; she’s not used to being neglected or dismissed or teased.

            The danger is that, once you get that first taste of the fruits of anti-charm, you respond to the seemingly miraculous reversal in hierarchical roles by overdoing it. Apparently, using too many “negs” or “indicators of disinterest” is a common mistake for beginning pickup guys. And the problem extends far beyond the realm of men attracting women in bars.

            What pickup artists and salespeople call qualifying is an even more powerful way of controlling status dynamics. If done a certain way, it can make people feel good about themselves—it can be charming. How it works is you make a case for some quality you look for in friends or lovers. “I try to surround myself with creative people because they’re always finding new ways to look at things, and they’re always finding new things to look at.” Now it’s your interlocutor’s turn to speak. Most people, if they like you at all, will explain at this point why they believe they meet your criterion. They’ll qualify themselves.

            Anti-charmers can also use this tactic. There are some qualities almost everyone likes to think they possess: intelligence, kindness, good looks, sexual prowess, professional competence. So even if someone doesn’t know you, he or she can make you feel bad by suggesting you lack one or more of these qualities. Why would anyone want to do that? Because many people will respond by trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the person who has just insulted them. They bend over backward qualifying themselves. And the anti-charmer enjoys the attendant boost in status.

            Qualification gets even more sinister when the anti-charmer focuses on qualities central to her target’s identity. Say you know someone prides himself on his fashion sense. In an offhand way, you can suggest you don’t like the way he dresses. (This will probably work better, for obvious reasons, if you’re a woman.) Or, if you know someone who prides herself on her intuition about people, you can make subtle comments about how dense she is when it comes to understanding social interactions. They’ll hate you. But they’ll make a special effort to convince you you’re wrong about them. Their intense feelings about you may even turn to obsessive lust.

            A lot of people who like to think of themselves as especially authentic and genuine, more substance than flash and gimmick, find anti-charm to be an appealing social strategy. And they definitely come across as more honest, courageous enough to be who they are no matter who they offend and no matter who they may have to confront. It can even work if the fault you find in a person is moral, which is precisely why so many people fall prey to self-righteousness.

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            The scary thing, though, is that we may feel certain that we are merely representing our true selves, telling the honest truth, or legitimately indignant over some moral outrage, when in reality all we’re doing is power-tripping. Anytime we find fault, we’re placing ourselves above the person we’re finding fault with. Sometimes calling people out is appropriate—sometimes not calling them out would make you complicit. But we simply cannot rely on our natural intuitions to discern legitimate from trumped-up charges; we need some set of guiding principles. We also need, more often than we like to admit, to reference the perspectives of disinterested parties.

            When it comes to game, there’s a point when you either become much more subtle in your indicators of disinterest or you quit using them altogether. Pickup guys call this moving from the attraction phase to the comfort phase. The recognition that anti-charm has its place, but that it can be taken too far, clung to long after its usefulness is exhausted, is an important insight. Hierarchical relationships are inherently stressful. Spending too much time with an anti-charmer is a good way to make yourself miserable.