Plenty has been written about the traits of charming people: what causes their appeal, how they can be dangerous, and how to enhance your own likeability and influence. But it is harder to pinpoint and discuss the other side of this personality coin. How do you talk about someone who seems to have the opposite of charisma?
My friend Carolyn, the Writing Texan, semi-jokingly calls this "anti-charisma." As a writing coach, it is her job to make professionals sound like the best, most charming version of themselves...even when they are awkward, difficult, or shy in person. "I think everyone has met someone who's got a bad case of anti-charisma," she laughs. "When you're around that person, you feel uncomfortable without knowing why. The things they do irritate or frustrate you, even though you don't mind when someone else does the same thing. You can't put your finger on it, but you still walk away thinking 'I just don't like that guy or gal.' The saddest part is, I think those people feel your discomfort, but they don't know what causes it or what to do about it, either."
After giving this some thought and research, I have identified 7 things that may contribute to a case of anti-charisma. The list below identifies attitudes and behaviors that may be diminishing your own likeability, together with suggestions for what you can do about it. I can't promise to turn you into a Charming Charlie, but at least others will stop avoiding you at cocktail parties.
1. You stand too close, too soon.
Research suggests that in many cultures, especially in the West, most people prefer 8-16 inches of space between themselves and others in a casual, non-intimate setting. You may have a good reason for standing closer--you can't hear well, the room is crowded, etc.--but it may still feel invasive to the other person. That may be why others' continually take a step back when you're talking to them. Start by allowing a foot of distance between yourself and others if you can, especially if you are in a new group or visiting a different culture. They will step closer as they feel more comfortable or engaged. If you have a genuine need to move in, just ask politely: "Excuse me, but I've lost the hearing in my right ear and this room is loud. Can I step a little closer? I don't want to miss the punch line of that joke!"
2. You don't ask, you tell.
There's a Hannah Horvath (of HBO's Girls) in every crowd. This is the person who is absolutely convinced that no one else has ever gone through whatever they are currently experiencing. And they can't wait to tell everyone in earshot about it. It doesn't matter how upsetting, frustrating, or weird your life is, in this world someone somewhere has already been there. That may be why others' eyes start to glaze over at about minute 25 of your diatribe, even if the listeners know and love you well. In conversation, make a point of starting with an inquiry about the other person, and use mirroring to show you are listening. Before you unload, ask their permission to vent. And if you're concerned you may ramble, set the timer on your watch or phone for 10 minutes. You may find you actually get over things more quickly if you acknowledge your feelings and move on, rather than dwelling on them.
3. Your touch is out of touch.
I'm not talking about outright sexual harassment; I assume you already know to keep away from other people's private parts. But beware letting your touch linger elsewhere. If someone doesn't know you well, a drawn-out handshake, back/shoulder pat, or arm squeeze can set off defensive reflexes. The same is true if you pick up, play with, or borrow their possessions without asking. That includes family pictures, books, desk toys, or their red Swingline stapler. With body contact, use a firm but gentle touch and break away in 5 seconds or less. With personal items, your mom was right. Always ask before you touch.
4. You don't blink.
Whether you are gazing into their eyes or at the wall behind them, people squirm when a stare feels too intense. Yes, forgetting to blink is like forgetting to breathe--it can happen to anyone in a moment of stress, intense focus, or distraction. Since the average observer can't read your thoughts, however, you can't blame them for finding your stare a little creepy. Make a habit of closing your eyes and inhaling slowly at least once every few minutes. You'll feel better and so will they.
5. Your expression says "Danger ahead."
A couple of years ago, popular media was full of talk about "resting b*$!# face," a facial expression that seems annoyed or angry though the wearer doesn't actually feel that way. For some, genetic make up may be responsible for an inadvertently stony gaze. Or you may have the opposite problem: zero poker face. Your furrowed brow and tight jaw shout "I just got a traffic ticket" while your mouth is trying to say "Happy Birthday, Grandma." In either case, others feel judged even though that's the last thing you intend. I'm not going to advise anyone to "smile more" if they don't feel like smiling. There are many different steps you can take from warning sign to welcome sign. According to Elle journalist Julie Schott, you can consciously relax your eyes so they open a bit wider, or try tilting your head very slightly to one side. Or share the context and invite the observer to lend a hand: "I know I'm frowning, I just got a ticket! Know any good, clean jokes?"
6. You suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.
Do you often find yourself saying: "Why does nobody get my jokes?" or "I say what I think, what's wrong with that?" Are your contributions to the group conversation met with silence or averted gazes? Then you have just given offense or created discomfort. It doesn't matter that your mistake was unintentional; the bad feelings are the same. First, diagnose the source of the problem with a trusted friend, relative or counselor. Your issue could be awkward presentation. If so, try an improv acting class or join a public speaking group. Or it could be a context/content problem, i.e., trouble putting yourself in others shoes, imagining what they might be thinking or feeling, and choosing your words with care. If so, consider empathy training.
7. You miss the "keep out" signs.
Most people like being asked about themselves, and it's good manners to express an interest. But you need to know when to stop. If your questions become too personal too soon, others may feel you are demanding an intimacy you haven't earned. Let them decide when you have won enough trust to share their political beliefs, romantic troubles, or family history. That doesn't mean you have to limit conversation to the weather and weekend plans. There are plenty of topics that will help you know others better. You can ask their opinions on popular films or music, or what they like best about their work, or who their favorite authors are. If you listen closely to the answers, it will tell you much about the person speaking. If they start to look away, shift the topic, or fall silent, then it's time to back off.