Charismatic = Manipulative?
January 22, 2018 12:55 AM   Subscribe

Is charisma always a bad trait?

A little while ago I got a comment saying that I wasn't particularly charismatic on stage (I do a fair bit of performance art). It wasn't really a new criticism, it's something I'd known a while - and specifically I know this because I've long felt an aversion to the whole idea of charisma.

Most of that aversion has come from bad relationships with very charming charismatic types that end up turning on me in horrific ways when I disagreed with them or became a threat to their ability to charm others. It ends up making me extremely doubtful of the sincerity or genuineness of our relationship, which puts me in a terrible tailspin.

I'm also very averse to and wary of manipulation as a result - but what horrifies me is that I know I have the capacity to be manipulative. As in, I'll be in some kind of social or interpersonal situation and I can tell what the manipulative way to react is so that I'll get what I want whether or not the other person gets anything out of it. But because I can recognise it, I strive for the opposite reaction - which is usually just being honest or frank (usually I try to be kind or diplomatic too, because I'm also the sort of person that can see multiple sides of a situation, but when really pushed I can be really blunt to the point of unkind). Even if that frankness costs me something. At least I'm not lying, at least I'm not tricking the other person into doing or saying something they wouldn't normally say. My candour is an appreciated trait - not by all, of course, but enough.

I can recognise that my attitude towards charisma might be overly reductive. My upfront-and-honest approach does work with some of the performance art I do, but may not be the best approach for others. (That being said, I'm reminded of this one person who does a lot of MCing and public speaking around town and they are very obviously not charismatic on stage. But they're whip-smart and outspoken and get a lot of accolades for it. So they make it work somehow.) Sometimes people tell me I'm charming, which I don't understand because I feel like I'm somewhat actively trying to be the opposite and also I have a naturally strong personality no matter how much I reign it in. Also, for some reason, whenever I play RPGs I keep going for characters with interesting charisma powers. So charisma in and of itself can't be all that bad.

I feel like charisma may be a skill I need to improve on, but I cannot get past the feeling of charisma being tied to manipulation, lying, coercion, taking advantage of people, and so on. I don't want to fool anyone into believing a version of me that's a lie (which I recognise is a contradiction when we're talking acting or stage magic!!). I've started talking to my therapist about this (like literally we just broached this topic earlier today) but it'll be a while before we get to fully unpack it.

Is there a way to be charismatic and genuine? Is it always evil to go for the manipulative option in a conversation? Is there a middle ground here that I'm not seeing? Maybe I'm missing something? I feel like I am, I just don't know how to get past the BAD EVIL AVOID alarm.
posted by divabat to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Charisma is like any other strength; you can use it responsibly. Not every physically strong person you know uses that strength for physical violence and abuse; not every charismatic person is a cold manipulator. Charisma is about having a high EQ and being able to easily communicate with people at a level that resonates emotionally with everyone in the encounter— basically, it means having good social skills. This can be used for manipulation, but also for coaching, therapy/emotional processing, creative collaboration, and community building. A positive term for charisma paired with empathy and compassion is just being “a natural leader.”. Charismatic people who don’t have that empthy for whatever reason are dangerous, just like someone with any other ability they can abuse is dangerous, but as a trait, by itself, it is not inherently manipulative or coercive.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:43 AM on January 22, 2018 [31 favorites]

It looks like there are two issues here - charisma in personal or day-to-day life and charisma on stage?

I think the first question is very interesting and important. I really think it's worth treating charisma and genuineness on stage as a separate thing, though. Being on stage uses different language than daily life: subtle body language, quiet speech, and so on are not perceivable to the audience, so an actor has to use methods that would feel unnatural or fake in daily life. Similarly with enthusiasm and other emotions: they have to be amplified to come across (I don't think that necessarily means bombastic).

Maybe instead of thinking about performance skills in terms of charisma and manipulation, think about it in terms of reaching out to the audience to build involvement and engagement.

You're doing magic shows, right? You want to bring the audience along with you on a ride. What is the atmosphere you want to project? What are the feelings you want to share? The more you reach out to your audience, look them in the eye, encourage their interest, the more you'll be able to share with them the feelings that brought you onto the stage in the first place - and I think a lot of people will call that charisma.

If you want an example of people using that kind of charisma - that kind of ability to make people feel as if they're coming along with you on a journey - think of a really good teacher conveying their love for their subject matter to even reluctant pupils. It's not manipulation, because the feelings that are being transmitted are truly genuine.
posted by trig at 1:52 AM on January 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

There's a bit of culture in it too, which can help see the strengths and weaknesses – in the States (and also in Scandinavian countries and Finland), being frank is viewed as a virtue. Straight talk, sincerity, honesty, genuineness. "Smooth talkers" are practically a synonym for manipulators. Whereas in Latin countries (France, Italy, Spain for instance), too much sincerity is often viewed as a weakness. You're expected to use soft skills all the time – it's viewed as polite and respectable to chat with people, develop relationships, and come to a common accord. Being frank can be seen as hostile, blunt, uncouth, rude. In the US (with some exceptions of course), we're very "hi, I think X," with the assumptions "this is my truth and I would like to hear yours, I don't want to impose because I respect your time and we'll talk about other things when other things are pertinent." In Latin countries, it's more "hi, how are you? Doing well? That's good. Crazy weather we've been having, eh. How are the kids/cats/dogs? That's great to hear! Are you still taking them to the park? Oh, X? Yeah, I know, right! I think X."

It sounds like what you've been burnt by isn't so much charm and charisma, as it is egotism/narcissism. You can be charming and care about others' feelings.

I do think it's good to delve into with your therapist as there are probably a lot of issues tied up in how you've described getting what you want as manipulative. Obviously it's not always manipulative – if it were, the human race would be extinct. So long as what you want isn't hurting anyone, and if you're asking someone for help who has indeed agreed, why would it be manipulative? Equitable give and take is the basis of human society. If you have trusting relationships with people who know they can come back to you with "that thing you asked, sorry, I won't be able to, but maybe some other time?" for instance, then you're doing fine. It's the selfish sorts who only want things their way who have issues.

A good way I've found to peg high-potential egotists, by the way, are people whose favorite topic of conversation, right off the bat (before you even get to know them – that's part of the key) is how horrible everyone has always been to them and how that keeps happening but YOU, they trust YOU, a person they barely know, with this highly sensitive information. (It's the sort of thing that, as a human being with an average ego, when life sucks and you do indeed feel like an awful lot of people suck, well, you don't go around telling random acquaintances.) Someday you are highly likely to become one more name on their endless list of those who have wronged them. These people have a very odd charisma about them that can seem magnetic. Inescapable... because they don't want you to escape. Whereas charismatic people who truly love what they do, and care about others, it's more of a gentle warmth. Needing to escape them never even crosses your mind.

I bet there are people you've crossed like that? trig gives a good description. Think of them and how their charisma was shown, and how it felt to you. That should help you sort it more too.
posted by fraula at 2:41 AM on January 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

I like these answers so far. Here is another way to frame it, in case it helps adjust how you see it.

Just about any personality quality you can think of can be both good and bad, in moderation and extreme.

For example, anger. At a moderated level, it can be a powerful tool for justice and social change. At it's extreme, it can be dangerous and toxic.

Selflessness - at a moderate level, it's a fantastic quality. Taken to extreme, it may result in a person being taken for granted, walked over, and bruised by life (unfortunate but true given that humans can be Notoriously Shit).

Charisma - moderately, it is a valuable social skill that can help you to build rapport, relationships, and gain people's empathy. At its extreme, it becomes manipulation, narcissism.

So... you can give a little bit of room for almost every possible aspect of your personality, as long as it doesn't become the dominant one, and you don't need to be frightened of them. We all contain multitudes - the person you're wary of becoming only happens if you allow one part of you to dominate.
posted by greenish at 3:15 AM on January 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

One of the things I think is useful when figuring out character traits like this is - if the predominant cultural examples that we often use to define the trait are powerful white men, see if you can find other examples to decouple some of the toxic masculinity from the trait itself. This lets you perhaps isolate parts that might be useful to work on in the way you present yourself to the world.

For example - I think Malala is charismatic which is one of the reasons her story is so compelling. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is incredibly charismatic. Both have used that charisma to make positive, collective change in the world. I don't think either seem inauthentic or disingenuous. Like many things, I think a balance can be struck between authenticity and presentation - once you know what your authentic self has to say, there's nothing wrong with polishing it and making it more palatable to others. That is charisma used well.
posted by notorious medium at 3:49 AM on January 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

Charisma is not the same as manipulativeness. Think of it more along the lines of “appeal” or “likeability.” It can be used for cruelty (serial killers, cult leaders) or kindness (community organizers, that really great teacher you had in high school) or kind of an unexamined selfish douchiness (a hecklot of salespeople, “influencers”, basically everyone in The Great Gatsby). It’s a lot like D&D alignment, where “lawful” or “chaotic” tells you how a character interacts with the world but not what’s in their heart.

I think we notice charisma more in the people who turn on us, because they specifically use their appeal to take advantage of us, and because their initial presentation is at odds with how they later act. The charismatic people who don’t turn on anyone are things like “really nice,” “natural leaders,” “fun at parties” and so forth.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:17 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

manipulation, lying, coercion, taking advantage of people

Manipulation is what con artists do, but it's also what massage therapists do. You're trying to make someone different than when they walked in. The thing that makes it ethical in the case of performance is that by walking into the venue, the audience is asking for you to change them. And if you try to, but they don't like it? They can leave, if nothing else. The non-evil way this works, in general, is that good people have respect and empathy for the people they're trying to influence, and that the target retains the ability to make contrary choices. Even a massage... you know, if you're determined to not relax, it's not relaxing.
posted by Sequence at 5:31 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I personally know someone who is charismatic and a good person. I have seen him manipulate people for his own ends (generally good ends, like agreeing to do some charitable work, but still, something that other people were not necessarily 100% for), but that is not his usual style. I think he is usually unconscious to his charisma and the way people respond to it/him, but sometimes he definitely "turns on the charm" on purpose. Usually when he does that it seems to be when he wants to draw someone out or establish a relationship with them, but sometimes I think he does it because it's fun. I don't see any harm in either of those things. I have complicated feelings about this person because I too am suspicious of charismatic people -- but over time I've come to trust him because his actions are positive and good.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:48 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

To be honest, I think of charisma as being more of a gift, something that some people have in spades, some people can develop as they get more comfortable performing or interacting with people, and some people just don't have at all. I do not know of any definitions of the word that associate it with being manipulative, though it'd definitely easier to manipulate people if you are charismatic.
posted by cakelite at 7:22 AM on January 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

With kindness: I think you need a brisk reality check. Imagine reading:

Water = urine?
Is water always poisonous?

Like sure, there is water in urine, and sometimes water isn't safe to drink. But when we talk about water, we generally mean a good thing, that people like to drink, and not urine, which people generally don't like to drink, even though it contains water.

So when you casually ask if charisma is always bad, as though it being good is a rare exception, I think you have things very backwards. Because 99.9% of the time charisma is used to described positive traits, feeling, interactions, etc, even though yes, some people may use their charisma to manipulate. Maybe look up some definitions of charisma? Because you seem to be defining "deception" and not "charisma".

Charisma is a bit like writing. Some people are naturally good at it, some people seem... challenged. Most of us can get better with some practice, but it's very hard to teach, and it takes a lot of time and willingness to work in good faith.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:28 AM on January 22, 2018 [12 favorites]

Joseph Epstein has a book coming out this year titled "Charm: The Elusive Enchantment” that might be of interest to you. He usually has interesting things to say.
posted by BWA at 7:36 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

A little while ago I got a comment I wasn't particularly charismatic on stage (I do a fair bit of performance art).

If this was only one comment, I'm not sure how much weight you should give it, because I don't actually agree that there's a single uniformly applicable definition of "charisma." Different people are drawn to different types of personalities, and by calling that "draw" charisma, we suggest that it's a stable quality inherent in one person (the charismatic one), when in fact, it's a two-way process. Flirtation, flattery, confidence, warm and welcoming body language...these are tools we can use to draw people towards us and put them at ease, but so are, for example, humor, curiosity, self-deprecation and (your favorite) candor.

If anything, calling someone charismatic might suggest an ability to use a wide range of those tools, and to adjust your self-presentation depending on the needs of the person you're engaging with. You could read this as manipulative, I suppose, but it seems more accurate to me to call it self-awareness -- an ability to recognize the effect you're having on another person, and adjust accordingly. What you do with that ability (as others have pointed out) could be bad, but assuming that there's something necessarily false or insincere about it is inaccurate and slightly backwards - we should want to leave people feeling good about talking to us! That's the baseline of any human exchange.

Reading your question specifically in a stage context, I'd suggest that "you should work on your charisma onstage" can be usefully interpreted as, "You should pay more attention to how your audience is feeling, and adjust accordingly." So, like, maybe you've got this one great trick that is just technically brilliant and when it goes off, people are astounded, but there's a long lead-up of preparation and while they're waiting, people get a little bored.

One kind of "charismatic" performer might fill this airtime up with charming and hilarious banter, getting everyone laughing. That might not be you, but that's okay. Another might do a lot of stagecraft, using dramatic music and lights and sound effects to build tension. Or another one might straightforwardly talk the audience carefully through what's happening, making the trick even more fascinating by 'pulling the curtain back' in a way that highlights the artistry and technical proficiency it requires. All of these are legitimate tools, and if they put the audience at ease and increase their engagement with what you're doing, then they'll make you a more "charismatic" performer - and none of them require you to be manipulative or insincere.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:41 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

manipulation is what people resort to to get their way when they don't have charisma -- if you're charismatic enough, you can be blunt and honest all day long right in people's faces and they'll still like you at the end of it. the less personal magnetism you have, the more careful you have to be about tempering your forthrightness with kindness and politeness.

charisma's like beauty for the personality. nobody deserves it, some people are born with it, it can make you well-liked without trying, it can make people jealous of you, and there's nothing wrong with having it. It can be used for bad purposes if that's what you choose to do with it, but it has no intrinsic connection with any bad quality.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:02 AM on January 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

The best charisma is based in empathy and enthusiasm for your audience, whether it's a conversation with a friend or a speech in front of millions.

Using those qualities purely to suit your own ends, or as a way to hurt others for a personal or group goal, is where a charismatic person can seem coercive. I see someone's charisma as a synthesis of a number of factors, but the common root is the ability to express something that others find attractive to the extent they're drawn to you.

There are basic speaking skills and body language you can practice, but the root of it comes down to making a connection. If I'm presenting an idea to others, I like to think of it in terms of how I'd explain the premise of my favorite book. How do I relate to the story, and would my audience relate to the same things? Are there cultural aspects to it that I might emphasize if my listener would relate more strongly? Are there parts I might elide if I start down a path and my friend's expression indicates they're not that interested? I want to convey my own enthusiasm, and the value of the book, while catering my explanation to the common ground we share.

I'm not coercing anyone to read a book. If my explanation was charismatic, the description might be the end in itself. My friend now believes that the book has value.
posted by mikeh at 11:17 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really like queenofbithynia's comment likening it to beauty. There's nothing wrong with being charismatic just as there's nothing wrong with being beautiful. There are a lot of different ways to be charismatic/beautiful, and ways to highlight or de-emphasize it. There are ways to use it for cruelty or kindness.

Manipulation can also be a bit value-less, on its own. When I teach, I am trying to manipulate my audience into being interested in learning this thing I'm showing them. I could choose to manipulate them into thinking the topic is boring. I could do either without lying.

They can both certainly be used towards immoral ends, and in interpersonal situations it's not a bad idea to check in with yourself now and then and make sure you're not using those tools to do harm. But especially in a theater situation, people have paid for fiction, and you should feel free to lay that charismatic glamour on exactly as thick as you like to get the desired audience response.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:17 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Maybe charisma can be neutrally understood as a natural talent for interpersonal poise, akin to a natural talent for numbers. I think others have touched on how that can be used for good or evil (eg someone good with numbers contributing to a non-profit’s operations, or say the Manhattan project).

As an example to help in understanding the possible “good” side of charisma in practice, I think of performers like Robin Williams, who had anecdotes surrounding him like how he met a family coming back from a funeral by chance at a diner, and was able to provide comfort and make them laugh in their darkest hour. I’ve also personally met Mark Rylance, the famoussss and acclaimed British actor after a play he performed in, and I remember how shy and scared I was, my voice literally a squeak as I said I was trying to be an actor too (too!!! As if we could possibly belong to the same class...), and he took me in and gently joked about how I would take his job one day. It was a charming!!

I think it’s possible for charisma, used for good ends, to provide another avenue of kindness, and if the impulse is honest it doesn’t have to be a sort of false identity betrayal.
posted by pengwings at 3:44 PM on January 22, 2018

As other people have pointed out, what you do with charisma onstage isn't necessarily the same as what you do with it in private life. I am a shy awkward person who has to take a deep breath, close my eyes and hold my nose before I make a comment in a group of people gathered together socially (okay, not literally, but that's how it feels), but I taught high school and junior high for years. I never found it difficult, standing in front of a class, to project my personality at them, use different phrasings and tones of voice to convey anger or humor, make deliberately dumb jokes, be physically expansive in my gestures, get them to react, draw their attention to me, do what I could to make sure they remembered what I was saying, and so on. This isn't quite the same thing as actually performing onstage, of course, but I think it's quite closely related. Charisma in this context is a tool you use to interact with your audience, enhancing the connection, and as such it's pretty value-neutral; it can be manipulative, with a wide variety of end goals (often just "have a good time and come see me perform again another day"), but that isn't necessarily a problem.
posted by huimangm at 7:34 PM on January 22, 2018

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