What is superficial charm?
August 31, 2015 10:29 PM   Subscribe

When superficial charm is used to describe people with anti-social personality disorder or sociopathy, what is meant?

I am trying to understand what is meant by superficial charm and glibness, when it comes to people with APSD, psychopathy and sociopathy. I am especially interested in how this might look in people who are more not very chatty or social, if that is even a thing. Perhaps more how it might look in someone who has social anxiety or is more introverted and perhaps kind of geeky, if that is even possible.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
To me superficial charm implies easy small talk, ready smiles, ( but absence of real engagement). I don't know how someone who was geeky, introverted and not chatty could be like that.

What I guess it means when applied to such people might be that their social clumsiness is cute and the misjudged or eccentric things they say tend to be amusing or endearing. It might mean that the strategies they've learnt to ward people off are, unbeknownst to them, delivering that kind of puppyish appeal. Just guessing.
posted by Segundus at 11:24 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Think of the stereotypical car salesman and dial it down a notch. It's all surface, there's no genuine warmth or interest. It's calculated, and seems so (depending on the person).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:45 PM on August 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

Superficial charm, to me, is someone who says and does all the right things... Except when you need them to.
posted by erst at 12:46 AM on September 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's really hard to separate "superficial" from "actual" charm (as the "criticism" section of Wikipedia article on the topic points out). You often only find out it was superficial when they turn around and stab you in the back.

One of the factors used to score sociopathy is promiscuity, and I think that's a helpful way to think about it. A guy who has "superficial charm" is probably also the kind of person who is good at picking up women in bars.

I know it's a fictional example, but have you seen Battlestar Galactica, the 2003 version? I think Gaius Baltar is a great example of someone with "superficial charm" and (although he does exhibit some empathy) you could probably diagnose him as sociopathic if you're into diagnosing the mental problems of fictional characters.
posted by phoenixy at 1:05 AM on September 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think it sort of comes down to not behavior but motive? It's the guy who remembers all your kids' names and asks about them, but not out of a sense of caring, but because he knows that this is likely to garner YOUR appreciation of HIM.
posted by thebrokedown at 2:02 AM on September 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think "superficial" charm is what you say somebody has after you find out that a seemingly nice person was really a shit, or what you say of somebody when you are sure they're a shit but you watch them charming everybody else. You could also say it of somebody who seems really fake and glib, like the stereotype car salesman example cited above. "Heeeey, buddy! Lemme tell ya about a deal you won't believe..."

This may sound like a derail, but I don't think Gaius Baltar is the best example. He's not a sociopath (we see him agonizing over the suffering of others on a number of occasions) but he is cowardly and desperate and for most of the series he will let others die to save himself. He's not happy about it, but he will make that choice in an instant. (His whole journey in the show is that he eventually becomes a better, braver and more selfless man.) When we see him in his element, in flashbacks or other times when he feels in control, he becomes arrogant and glib. But for most of the series he is in a panic, acting on his basest instincts in a desperate effort to save himself.

I think a better (if sillier) example may be Zaphod from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, TV show, radio et al. Zaphod is a manic egoist and opportunist who is always desperate to appear friendly, cool and relaxed. He is big and loud and he has a rep as the ultimate party boy, but he is always scheming and doesn't truly care about anybody but himself. In fact he has some contempt for most people, and there are a lot of nasty little insults buried in his funny patter. Mostly they're directed at Arthur and Marvin because he presumably feels like those two have nothing useful to offer and they're safe targets. But as soon as either one of them becomes valuable in some way, suddenly they're old friends.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:06 AM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

note that charm is not part of the definition of ASPD - see the DSM IV list here. so it's not clear to me that anything exact is meant - it may just be a common prejudice about people with that disorder.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:03 AM on September 1, 2015

Superficial charm is when you spend five minutes with someone and think "wow, what a swell person!" And then you spend five more minutes with them and think, "hmm, I don't trust them."
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:23 AM on September 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

I agree with Metroid Baby. My ex had superficial charm, yet he was introverted and geeky (not really socially anxious though except around completely unfamiliar people). His MBTI was ISTP. His superficial charm consisted of exhibiting brash confidence (although he cared deeply what other people thought of him), being able to double everyone over with his sharp oh-so-inappropriate wit, spending lots of money on people (to an awkward point, as if he thought he could buy their love), and just being that amiable, always ready for fun guy you want to have at parties. It helped that he was physically attractive. So he was good-looking, smart, funny, "confident" and got along with people -- as long as it was on a surface level.

And yet, as his long-term girlfriend (who was unhealthy myself: I had Borderline tendencies) I was subject to plenty of cruel, callous, and narcissistic behavior that none of his friends really saw. It was interesting though, that at one of the parties we went to, his friend's dog could not stop barking at him, although the dog was nice to everyone else. I've always thought that dog picked up on something most humans couldn't.
posted by Sa Dec at 4:20 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think it's possible to be anxious/disordered/introverted and charming. There are lots of ways to be charming. And introversion =/ poor social skills.

Have you heard of attachment disorder? It often happens to kids who are abused/neglected very very young. Their adoptive parents typically find them to be the 'perfect' children at first because they have learned that they need to be perfect in order to get their most basic needs met. The safer they feel, the 'worse' they behave, and their behavior can be/be indistinguishable from psychopathy/sociopathy.

You know the saying, people will forget what you said but not how you made them feel? People who make other people feel good around them are usually perceived as charming. That's a social skill that comes very naturally to some people, can be learned by most people, and has little/nothing to do with a person's actual character. It can be accomplished by making other people feel like you're an exciting interesting person and they will get more exciting by being around you - or by making them feel like they're exciting/interesting/wise people and you feel lucky to be around them. It can be as simple as keeping a conversation going when no one else has the energy/skill to, listening with attention, opening a door, giving up a seat, smiling at the right moment. Most of these are well within the reach of someone with disordered behavior/emotions, especially if only kept up in shorter bursts and with newer people who don't have their own emotional baggage for that person yet.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:17 AM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I actually think the term superficial charm is more of a retroactive assessment, as well as a way of expressing that psychopaths aren't necessarily people lurking in corners scowling at everyone but can be very engaging.

Introversion and extroversion are ways of getting energy, not modes of interaction, and I actually think it's a very interesting question whether true sociopaths would even really rate on that scale, since they may not actually really perceive people as like them at all and may not get energy except by exercising control.

Having had an up-close experience, I think a lot of the charm there was that he was very adept at reading people and figuring out what would charm them. So that might be positioning himself as an expert, or helping people (which naturally creates a sense of obligation too), or it might have been remembering the names of someone's dogs and dropping by with a houseplant. He was also great at getting people to confide in him, because he was really, really good at finding people who needed someone to confide in.

Part of what made it so crazy was that it had almost nothing to do with who he was. It wasn't that he wanted to be perceived as smart, for example; if being perceived as stupid would get him what he wanted, he was quite content to do that and then go on a rant later about how stupid people were to believe that. The charm was in service of a set of goals. Motive really was the key here.

In geeky circles I think charm often comes from being a bit self-deprecating, remembering people's individual passions and entering into them -- dropping by with a rare copy of whatever -- and providing wit and intellectual oomph without nit picking every point.

I think it probably is possible to have social anxiety and be suffering from ASPD but I think in that case the suffering would probably be more about perceived lack of status or perceived exclusion than lack of connection. That said, I think the impulsivity and lack of awareness of social norms and feelings of others in the less-skilled psychopath can come across as social anxiety and a sociopath could use terms like social anxiety in geeky circles to both explain his or her behaviour and become part of the tribe.

I do think often there's a gut feel about people with ASPD, at least the not-as-skilled ones or if you are a person whose instincts have become honed via experience. I have met people who made a spot at the back of my neck feel a bit prickly, not quite the hairs on the back of my neck but close, and I really pay attention to that feeling. It's the sense of a dead zone in the person where the acknowledgement between us that we are both human normally exists with people. I may be overblowing it but internally I think of it as my survival brain informing me that this is the human equivalent of a tiger stalking me, and get out of the forest.

I personally believe that narcissism is different from ASPD and that a lot of behaviour we attribute to sociopaths is actually narcissism (or BPD). I do believe a lot of narcissists suffer tremendously from not being able to form the connections with others that they have in their idealized minds, but that is a different question...that said I think a charming narcissist and a charming sociopath are not easy to tell apart from the outside.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:44 AM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am trying to understand what is meant by superficial charm and glibness, when it comes to people with APSD, psychopathy and sociopathy.

I think, in this context, the "superficial" description is more of an after-the-fact analysis; that it's only after someone's sociopathy has been discovered that other people then realize that this person who seemed charming and friendly and engaging was actually unable to form deep emotional bonds and possibly does not view other people as being "real", thus their charm is superficial. They are charming because they are mimicking "normal" human behavior, partly to hide their sociopathy, partly because they realize that being charming is a useful route to fulfilling their desires. Ted Bundy might be the essential example of this - it's generally accepted, I think, that he used an outward appearance of friendliness as a way to lure some of his victims to a place where he could overpower them, and he was apparently quite good as a political campaigner and organizer, easily able to get strangers to talk with him about who they might vote for and why, able to convince these strangers to consider voting for whoever he was campaigning for. But of course simultaneously and underneath he was a horrific psychopath and serial killer.

(Source for above; not a mental health professional, but, erm, at one point read a lot of books about serial killers and law enforcement profiling . . . .)

I am especially interested in how this might look in people who are more not very chatty or social, if that is even a thing. Perhaps more how it might look in someone who has social anxiety or is more introverted and perhaps kind of geeky, if that is even possible.

I think here the catch is you're sort of by definition talking about differences between people's public lives and personas vs. their private lives and personas, and their private lives and personas are the very thing that sociopaths are trying to keep hidden by being superficially charming. If someone is being openly unsocial or introverted or socially anxious, they are not being superficially charming, while Sa Dec's example of her ex above describes behavior that virtually anyone could find charming, she only knew about her ex's introversion and geekiness because she had a view into his private life by being his girlfriend. IOW, the glib superficial charm is probably going to look largely similar regardless of how geeky or intorverted the person is, and you'd only know if they were socially anxious or introverted if you got a glimpse into their private life that most people would never get.

All of which said, I think it's virtually impossible to use superficial charm as any kind of . . . . . . . diagnostic tool for determining anyone's pathologies, especially for a layperson. Not least because, AFAIK, having multiple layers to your personality, having facets of your personality that you only show to some people, and having some level of difference between how you conduct yourself when dealing with strangers and casual acquaintances versus how you conduct yourself with SO's or spouses or close friends or family is entirely normal. As per Salamandrous, "charm" is a social skill that can be learned, and as per fffm's "car salesman" example or Metroid Baby's description, displaying a level of charm that can be relatively easily seen as artificial is not necessarily a sign of an actual pathology or disorder.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:06 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

From this reddit comment: She said his smile never seemed to met his eyes.
posted by ShooBoo at 6:18 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I generally think of the "charm" of people with antisocial personality disorder to be manipulative, a way of getting people to do what the person with the personality disorder wants or just to fuck with people. It's not about the actual interaction between two people, but about the one person exerting his or her will on the other through seduction (romantic or platonic) rather than force or coercion.

It's not a requirement for a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, so it's not like a geeky introvert would need to express such charm in order to be diagnosed with the disorder. It's kind of one tool in the dysfunctional toolbox (along with actual force and coercion). I have to say, though, I keep flashing to Hugh Grant on Leno -- not because I think he has Antisocial Personality Disorder but because I think of that as the type of superficial performance of "geeky charm" that someone might use to manipulate others.
posted by jaguar at 7:10 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I had a boyfriend once whom I split up with. My dad said about him, "He makes a good first impression, but then he grows off you." (As opposed to something "growing on you.")
posted by SLC Mom at 7:56 AM on September 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Real charm means attention to others and their needs, politeness, and some amount of unguardedness. ("Prince Charming") Superficial charm means faking that charm without actually being interested or unguarded.
posted by quincunx at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I think of superficial charm I am more likely to think of the old school WASPy tendency to act with perfect cordiality and pleasantness towards someone you care nothing about. I don't equate that with sociopathy, though I see why it'd be a symptom.

If you want an example think newscasters. Watch them banter and joke and then flip the switch to serious triple homicide mode, then flip back to joking about the celebrity chef guest. Charming, but utterly superficial.

Most Bond villains, if you want a fictional example. Littlefinger in Game of Thrones would probably qualify too.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:59 AM on September 1, 2015

Response by poster: So, if I'm following everyone, someone who might be kind of socially awkward but who says things to manipulate people and outright admits that he tells people whatever he thinks they want to hear would fit this idea of being glib and superficially charming. It isn't that you have to be the life of the party. And if the person is just answering you, with no care for whether things are true or not, that would be how they're charming you, even if they don't have particularly good social skills some of the time. So, if you had someone who said they put on a fake persona to get someone to be their friend or partner, that would be enough and it's not that they have to be charismatic.

I see now the DSM V does not require glibness and superficial charm, so perhaps I've been going down the wrong path. I do see that it requires Conduct Disorder before age 15, but it could be very difficult to diagnose that if the person was doing things in secret.

posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:12 AM on September 1, 2015

Part of diagnosis is using one's clinical training and experience to ferret out behavioral issues from the past, especially with personality disorders because a requirement is that the symptoms have been present and stable for most of the person's life. Ethical, accurate diagnosis is not a quick thing.
posted by jaguar at 10:33 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I agree. I'm not trying to make a diagnosis myself, but someone I know is being assessed and a few persons providing collateral info were wondering about the above.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:27 AM on September 1, 2015

You know when you're watching TV and the "baddie" is being all sweetness and light to the victim, and then the camera turns so we can see their face when the victim can't, and we see the niceness dissolve and an Evil Grin spread over their face? That's kind of how it works, except of course in real life not everyone is lucky enough to get that camera angle and see the "baddie" for what they are.

Further to that, antisocial people I have known have invariably been described by unwitting others as "charming", "polite", "well mannered". They are full of compliments and gush over other people, making them extremely likeable. However, they don't back these words up with actions. They will happily stab you in the back then comfort you as you bleed to death. Metaphorically. How chatty or social they are doesn't seem to make much difference in my experience; introverts simply sidle off into a corner with a victim or chat them up online rather than being the life and soul of the party. This can actually make it easier for them to fly under the radar because people expect anti social people to be loud and aggressive and equate "quiet" with "shy" and "harmless" whereas these people are anything but.
posted by intensitymultiply at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

To me a charming sociopath/narcissist is someone who lies about almost everything so convincingly that it may take you months or even years to discover their lies, and even then you may be reluctant to admit the lie because, well, they were just so charming.
posted by a strong female character at 3:48 PM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Regards recognizing superficial charm in introverted people, several of my family members would seem to exhibit this tendency.

It's interesting in that disordered people can really use introversion to their own advantage in "gathering evidence"and really works to put people off the scent of their own manipulation.

The family members I am thinking about are to some extent diffident, but when encountered are unfailingly polite, but give nothing away about themselves in conversation and instead focus on the person they are talking to.

Most people think that this is great and will be manipulated into deep conversation which the person will keep going as long as possible. Once topics of conversation have been established, the person concerned will continue to probe these for weak spots.

Usually talkers think this is great! and therefore fall into the trap of ever greater self disclosure. This is dangerous and often comes back to bite them in the way that the interested party is not interested in what is being said as much as exposing the "flaws" in the story or emotional vulnerabilities of the "victim," and having established the relationship can use this information for their advantage later on.

The analogy I would use here is of a vampire and their victim, the disordered person in already having surveyed the victim's defenses, got "close" enough to them, have all they need to get easy and ongoing access to their prey. In understanding this they can be very skilled at using lots of different techniques to manipulate the victim, subtle criticism, over analysis, questioning, browbeating, gas-lighting, guilt tripping, and subtle shifts in attention etc in ways that people wouldn't expect or tolerate if this was overt.

Given the need most (and especially vulnerable) people have for understanding and acceptance, a lot of people can make the mistake of getting involved with these sorts of people very easily, and even in this case being a "willing victim" to these sorts of relationships.

Family members who operate in this way often find themselves at the centre of a web of "walking wounded" who are drawn into relationships on the basis of "friendship" at times of vulnerability but is more accurately described in terms of "narcissistic supply" and get off on the "closeness" of the relationship not realizing that they are a toy and a plaything.

Vampires position themselves in this relationship by dispensing sympathy not empathy, and in times of struggle be ready to "talk" endlessly and rhetorically to their victim, further embedding themselves into the situation, and subtly working on " narrating/reframing" the story to suit their own needs.

Meanwhile privately family members will make a display of sympathy without empathy disparage / pity these "friends" while simultaneously building their own self esteem off them as being "a good person" "being lucky" and "not having these sorts of problems" exposing that their attitudes are based essentially in contempt rather than compassion for the other person.

While some victims can stay around for a long time some do sometimes escape the "friendship" when considered either "too needy" or offered better options, or warned off by friends and are no longer need the vampire's attentions, but often are still kept "in the orbit" as a constantly renewing cast of friends and acquaintances, and can be pursued over time and space even long after the relationship has died.
posted by Middlemarch at 2:23 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Charm, paired with introversion, can look a little bit like what Segundus suggested: a helpless puppy appeal. The person might exaggerate their helplessness, and in turn position you as their only close contact and savior. Then, you may feel obligated to comply with their requests, because you are maneuvered into a position of responsibility for them.
posted by MrBobinski at 7:21 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Most successful salespeople, customer service, hospitality people have this.
You may even do this on occasion speaking on the phone to someone pleasantly, while making faces.
Or Dexter Morgan.
posted by MrMulan at 6:37 AM on September 3, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you all for helping me understand. So many of you have great answers. Middlemarch and Mr. Bobinski nailed it and really helped me with understanding what this looks like in this particular situation.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:09 PM on September 5, 2015

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