It’s the stuff of countless romance films and perfume commercials: An insanely alluring woman walks into a room (almost comically slowly) and all eyes turn to her. The gentlemen present are so compelled by her charisma that they immediately abandon their dates and rush to her side. Women want to be her and men want to be with her.
So what exactly are those seemingly intangible qualities that make a woman seem to light up a room? Obviously, we can’t deny that beauty is a major factor. But there are plenty of charismatic people that we’re inexplicably drawn to even though they’re not a 10 (or even a 6) in the looks department. Bill Clinton certainly springs to mind as does, say, Lady Gaga.
RESEARCH: Your Personality Makes You Attractive
With that in mind, we wanted to find out what exactly charisma is and why we’re so captivated by the most charming person in the room. More importantly, is charisma something you’re simply born with or can you learn to exude charm?
The short answer: definitely yes and a little bit of no. That has to do with the definition of charisma itself, which is essentially defined as “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (as a political leader); a special magnetic charm or appeal <the charisma of a popular actor>,” according to Merriam Webster. A 1988 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin cites an even more specific characterization of charisma: “Combining personality and social skill approaches, personal charisma has been defined as a dramatic flair involving the desire and ability to communicate emotions and thereby inspire others.”
The same study attempted to understand the effects of nonverbal expressiveness (like facial expressions or gestures) on favorable first impressions. They found that it had a significant impact—above and beyond physical attractiveness—that may help to explain the unconscious influence and sway the charismatic seem to hold over us. In the study, male and female undergraduates were secretly videotaped as they met for the first time and made small talk.
Bottom line: Emotional expressiveness—the ability to communicate both verbally and physically—connoted success when it came to initial social interactions. In other words, charmers are good at picking up social cues and can quickly read and appropriately interact with others depending on the mood and situation. They’re also stellar at creating intimacy and tend to be extroverts, a trait that is associated with openness and higher self-esteem.
Incidentally, many in the study’s “charismatic” group were also physically attractive. One possibility is that those in the good-looking gene pool grow up being so positively received by others that as they mature, they also develop the kind of innate confidence associated with ensured social acceptance. Plenty of studies show that good-looking people tend to be perceived as more likeable. (Hey, blame evolution.) But short of dressing in figure-flattering clothing and making cosmetic changes ranging from makeup to surgery, we have somewhat limited control over how people perceive our looks. So if that’s the case, how can we increase our allure?
Plenty of experts argue that charisma is an art form that can be taught. Ann Demarais, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in interpersonal communication and runs First Impressions, a personal coaching firm based in New York City, also contends that we can learn to be more socially successful in both business and personal relationships.Her easy suggestion for instantly increasing your likeability factor? Smile like you’re in a beauty pageant and there’s Vaseline on your teeth. Countless studies have shown the connection between smiling and how others perceive you. Demarais points to a University of Alaska study that asked participants to speak in public while others silently observed them. One group of listeners was instructed to smile, while the others maintained neutral expressions. Not surprisingly, the speaker later reported liking the friendly faces much more.
The research also suggested that eye contact and body language can also go a long way when it comes to establishing a more intimate connection with someone. For example, participants tended to give more favorable evaluations to those that leaned slightly forward and maintained a “gaze.” Interestingly enough, while both sexes rated gazing and smiling more highly, men preferred women to lean in more than women wanted men to.
These charm tactics (smiling, eye contact and leaning) may play out well in the ultimate romantic first impression—speed dating. One study found that women described as “agreeable” and men with a “promiscuous” orientation were better able to predict if their partner would want a second date, possibly because they were more flirtatious and attuned to their partners. Another speed dating study helps explain the phenomenon of the most desirable person in the room—your interest peaks if a person is in high demand (think Justin Beiber and his gaggles of lovesick fans). “Like a domino effect,” subjects were more interested in people whom others were also intrigued by.
READ MORE: Speed Dating Studies (& What They Mean for You)
How can you become this person? Pretend others like you. An Adelphi University study on social interactions and likeability found that, for study subjects, believing others liked them—regardless of whether it was true—made others more likely to return the sentiment. Why? Those who believed others liked them projected more warmth and intimacy, so the people they spoke with did too, leading to a fulfilling conversation for both people.
Demarais says that in social situations, we tend to associate charisma and charm with people who are appreciative, are able to connect with others, offer a degree of enlightenment (they have something interesting to say) and can elevate the mood of those around them.
One surefire way to unleash your magnetism is to shift your focus to the person you’re talking to. That’s because we’re suckers for people who think we’re fascinating. “One of the most powerful ways to connect with someone is to show a lot of interest in what they have to say,” says Demarais. In fact, charismatic people have a way of intently listening,“almost like they’re hanging onto every word you say.”
Case in point: our old friend Bill Clinton. People who have met the politician frequently echo the sentiment that when he is speaking to you, he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. Hey, it works for him.