This past week, someone I was chatting with used the word “charming” in a sentence. The word stood apart from the rest of the conversation. I think this is true for two reasons.
The first is that, like so many other words that have faded from regular employment, “charming” has fallen on hard times. Linguistically, this happens naturally, and for various reasons. In the vernacular economy, words replace other words. One reason I’ve heard for this has to do with proportionate use. In other words, a term maintains its viability when a larger portion of its users fit its description. I don’t know if that’s relevant to “charming.” Although, having recently witnessed a young boy in a waiting room at a doctor’s office tell his mom to shut up and give back his cell phone, and then to see her do exactly as he demanded, I sometimes wonder. Charming means polite and friendly leading to likability. Polite, friendly, and likable did not fit this kid, and unfortunately, such behaviors are more so becoming the rule than the exception. With that, I wonder if the word really is of much use to us, except in cases of sarcasm. This leads me to the other reason.
Another reason the word stood apart is that in this case it was used positively. We both knew the person being described as a friendly and likable person. Indeed, he is charming in every sense of the word. But again, it seems more often than not, the word is scarred by cynical nuance. Charm is seen as a tool for getting what one wants. I read this morning that psychologists have decided on a name for this kind of charm. It’s called “Eddie Haskell Syndrome,” appropriately named after the character from the show Leave it to Beaver. Eddie was known for gushingly good behavior when adults were around. But when they weren’t, he was up to no good. He used charm to gain trust, but only so that he could get away with his deviant schemes.
We all know people like Eddie Haskell, folks who portray themselves one way and yet are completely different behind the scenes.
A few years ago, I told my son Harrison that being charming was a lost art, and it’s one I wanted him to embrace—and I wanted him to do it in a genuine way. By the way, it’s not like he wasn’t demonstrating the characteristics already. He was (and does). In context, he was experiencing a moment of exhaustion from trying to be polite while so many of his peers seemed self-centered and impolite. In that tired moment, I just wanted to encourage him to stay the course, telling him that while it wouldn’t get any easier, it certainly was the best way to live. The Bible definitely says as much. The advice Saint Paul gives in texts such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22-23, and Colossians 3:12 isn’t bad. It’s good. By this, I meant for Harrison to understand that charm—polite and considerate friendliness—goes a long way with people. A man who does these things makes others glad to be with him. This is true not just because he’s pleasant to be around, but because he emanates honorability. He shows he’s worth trusting, and what he says and does is worth emulating. It’s likely I told Harrison what Albert Camus said about charm. Camus said something about how charming people are the only ones who own a person’s “yes” before ever asking a specific question.
Considering our world, Camus’ words (and mine) are likely to be twisted toward the negative. Politeness, kindness, respectfulness, clean language—all the various characteristics that make for charm—these are goodie-two-shoes behaviors for many modern onlookers, things people expect others to do because they’re either culturally awkward or because they’re attempting to manipulate others. In one sense, the cynics are right on both accounts. Genuinely charming people are out of step with the secular culture, which in my estimation, is a good thing. We need more people willing to speak up and say things like, “Hey, that’s wrong. You shouldn’t use foul language like that.” Secularism is rarely on the side of such goodness. But charming people seem to emit goodness. Goodness can and does influence others. Charming people tend to make others want to be better, not worse. Again, this is a good thing. We could use a lot more of what charming people bring to the societal table.
Of course, charm can be used for bad, too. Even Proverbs 31:30 notes that charm can be wielded deceitfully. More than familiar with this, I should mention I’ll have a close eye on any “charming” young men cozying up to my daughters. I’m not stupid. And so, to all the Eddie Haskells, I say, “Beware. My Jeep Wrangler is far roomier than it looks. It can also get to undiscoverable backwoods places that other vehicles cannot.” My point: I’ll be watching for charm’s real fruits—Godly fruits. In particular, I’ll watch for the boys who encourage my daughters to walk with Christ. However, only the ones who genuinely want to join them in that walk will ever come close to getting my blessing. In other words, if you cannot care for and walk with my girls as they walk beside Christ, you may be a nice person, but you’re not the kind of “charming” Christopher Thoma and the rest of his family are tracking.
In the end, the topic of charm’s fading usage is an interesting one. Does it really matter all that much? I don’t know. Plenty of words have disappeared over time. Although, it’s true we’ve lost some pretty interesting words like snollygoster and brabble. Look them up. You’ll see we absolutely need to reinvigorate both. Relative to charm, however, the word itself might not matter, but its meaning certainly does. I suppose when its synonyms (words like amiable, delightful, engaging, and others) begin disappearing, too, we should be concerned because, as a society, we likely no longer belong to their meanings.