July 21, 2024

At the end of 2023, the Oxford University Press chose “rizz” as its word of the year. Rizz, which topped a shortlist that included “Swiftie”, “parasocial” and ‘“situationship”, is defined by the OUP as a noun denoting “style, charm, or attractiveness; the ability to attract a romantic or sexual partner”. It can also be used as a verb, often linked with the word “up”, as in “to rizz up”.

Etymologically, rizz is said to be derived from charisma, although the person directly credited with popularising rizz – the American YouTuber Kai Cenat – has said that, as far as he knows, it is not.

Either way, the two words are now inextricably linked, not least because they refer to essentially the same thing, what John Potts, the author of A History of Charisma, called “a special innate quality that sets certain individuals apart and draws others to them”. Part of the magic of charisma is its mystery. What is it, exactly? And, more importantly, how much of it do I have?

“You don’t have any,” my wife says, when I ask her for a baseline assessment.

“I think that depends on how you define it,” I say.

“I don’t think it does,” she says.

Might I have rizz instead? At a large family party, I ask my middle son, who is 26, if he uses rizz to mean something different from charisma.

“I don’t use the word rizz,” he says.

“Why not?” I say.

“Because I’m not in secondary school,” he says. But rizz is, he accepts, a bit more specific than charisma. It’s more of a seductive charm, although I have seen adolescent TikTok influencers recommending fragrances to those wishing to “rizz up” their teachers.

“It’s a fine line,” my son says.

“How much rizz would you say I have?” I ask him.

“You’re sitting there with your back to everyone,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, “but if I turned around.”

Charisma is also a slippery term, deployed to describe everything from a mystic’s magnetism to superficial charm. We all think we know it when we see it, but the adjective “charismatic” is lavishly applied to individuals whom other people find unremarkable: Formula One drivers, say. Barack Obama is considered charismatic, but so is Vladimir Putin. Nelson Mandela, Picasso, Napoleon, Joan of Arc and the Dalai Lama are routinely cited as historical exemplars of charisma.

“He has the charisma and the oomph and a real leadership personality,” said one voter in the midst of the current general election campaign. She was talking about Nigel Farage.

How did our definition of charisma end up being so accommodating?

As with rizz, the origin of the word charisma can be attributed to a single source, in this case the apostle Paul. Derived from the Greek for grace – charis charisma refers to a gift divinely conferred (plural: charismata), and it’s widely accepted that the earliest written use of it in that sense comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The charismata Paul had in mind were specific, and included healing, miracle-working, the knack of prophecy and the ability to speak in tongues. Such diverse talents bear little resemblance to the modern quality of charisma, except for the persistent idea that you either have it or you don’t. You can’t earn it, and you can’t learn it. Or can you?

“I absolutely believe you can,” says Sally Anne Smith, a business consultant who styles herself as the Charisma Coach. Smith teaches charisma to business groups, or one to one, in person or remotely. Many of her clients are people working at tech firms who have been promoted to leadership roles without necessarily having the skills to lead. “I’m working with the super-brains,” she says. “But, of course, what they can’t do very well is connect with people and inspire people with their work. None of them joined that company to do that.”

I’m meeting Smith over Zoom in the hope that she can teach me everything there is to know about charisma, but it turns out there is something I can teach her: she has never heard the word rizz before.

“I need this for my blog, thank you,” she says. “Is it R, I, Z, Z?”

For Smith, the concept of charisma rests on three main pillars: presence, energy and confidence. But the objective is not so much a projection of magnetism as the ability to put others at ease.

“For me, it’s the art of starting a conversation,” she says. “You’re genuinely interested in that person, you’re not interviewing them. It’s about being curious, being open.”

She cites the TV presenter Rylan Clark, whom she met recently on Jeremy Vine’s radio show, as an example of someone with precisely this power. “He’s one of those people who makes you feel you’re the most important person in the room,” she says. “And it’s about doing that sincerely, not in a weird way that makes people feel uncomfortable or manipulated.”

So I just need to learn to fake sincerity. How do I do that?

“As somebody who sells this stuff for a living, I’ll be the first to say it’s no substitute for substance,” says Richard Reid, a coaching psychologist and the director of Pinnacle Wellbeing. Reid, like Smith, coaches his clients in charisma and not, he insists, the mere mechanics of manipulation. “You’ve got to have people’s interests at heart, you’ve got to know what you’re doing first and foremost. Charisma is the bit that helps you land your message in a way that is going to mobilise people, that spurs people to align with you or to take an action that is important to you.”

If I was asked for my advice on how the charisma-deficient can access its power, I would say: marry someone who already has it. When I need to mobilise people, get them on side or persuade them to take action that is important to me, I just get my wife to do it. She has the knack for developing an instant rapport with strangers, for getting them to prioritise her needs while thinking it’s their idea. And, therefore, so do I, as long as she’s in the mood to help me out. But she isn’t always.

“Fix your own broadband,” she says.

“But they won’t come out if I call them,” I say. “And, really, it’s our broadband.

I think: if I had some charisma, I could use my magnetism to charm my wife into doing all this stuff for me. But where would I start?

Smith’s relationship with charisma began in childhood. Her father, she says, had manic depression, which made home a hard place to be. “I actually had to learn how to adapt very quickly how I communicated, how I connected with other people,” she says. “How I could go into other families and stay with them for a little while.”

She was, she discovered, good at it. “They used to call me charming when I was young, and I never understood what that meant,” she says. She suspects the reason charisma seems innate rather than acquired is because those who have got it started learning it early.

“A lot of these people have been through some kind of trauma or experience in their life that has enabled them to adapt,” she says.

According to both Reid and Smith, charisma is fundamentally a set of skills. In this sense it has another thing in common with “rizz”, which is more about persuasion than physical charm. What charisma amounts to, Reid says, is “an ability to be agile in the moment”.

We seem to be a long way from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, from healing the sick and speaking in tongues. How did that kind of charisma become this kind of charisma?

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After the first century AD, charismata became less of a feature in Christianity. As the hierarchical structure of the church grew, freelance prophets and miracle-workers fell out of favour. For centuries, the word charisma survived only as an obscure term of theological scholarship.

Charisma was virtually extinct until the word was resurrected by a German sociologist called Max Weber, to describe a style of political domination – that of the personally magnetic leader – that existed in opposition to the rule of law or traditional frameworks of power. In 1904, Weber redefined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers”. At that time, the word charisma was so little-known that Weber’s English translator assumed he had made it up.

Weber turned a theological concept into a secular one, and by the 1960s charisma was in wide use – perhaps most frequently applied to the telegenic charm of John F Kennedy. From there, the definition stretched to include the elusive “halo effect” that surrounds not just leaders but performers, celebrities and Rylan. Now it’s also used to describe a certain conversational flexibility, a way of making other people feel important.

The first step toward acquiring charisma, according to both Smith and Reid, is to gain some mastery over the self-consciousness that keeps you from engaging fully with people.

“What’s stopping you being present?” Smith asks. “Is it fear of failure? Is it fear of judgment, impostor syndrome? I shouldn’t be here, what’s going on next door, all these kinds of things?”

All of those, except impostor syndrome. I don’t suffer  from impostor syndrome; I suffer from being an actual impostor.

“Bless you,” she says.

There are lots of ways to calm a noisy mind, but one of the simplest is breathing. “There’s a type of breathing called four-four-six,” Reid says. “That’s breathing in for four seconds, holding for four and breathing out for six. It effectively sends messages back to the brain that calm the brain.” It will help, he says, to “undermine any of those signals that make people feel you’re uncomfortable”.

Once you’re present enough to engage, becoming charismatic essentially involves watching what other charismatic people do, and adapting it to your personality: speaking more slowly, saying less, being deliberate.

If you, like me, find social situations energy sapping, it doesn’t mean all is lost. “For introverts, and a lot of our work is with introverts,” Reid says, “it’s really about how you add value to situations in a way that plays to your strengths. There is such a thing as quiet charisma, that lends itself to smaller interactions.”

While quiet charisma sounds appealing, it’s precisely those smaller interactions I find so difficult. I’d rather address 300 people than three.

When you choose the life of a writer, no one tells you quite how much public speaking is required. I still remember the first time I stood alone before an audience, at the Guernsey literary festival. My hands shook, my voice wobbled, and I ran short of breath. I wanted to turn and run through the door behind me, but the organisers had already warned me if I did that the whole venue – an inflatable tent – would collapse.

I got better at it. In my mid-40s I joined a band, and slowly became more at ease in front of an audience. Over time I have even come to enjoy the sleight of hand involved in public speaking: making eye contact with everyone by making eye contact with no one (I generally address the emergency exit signs at the back of the room). Sometimes the words I appear to be struggling to formulate have been memorised, awkward pauses included. Sometimes the piece of paper I seem to be reading from is blank.

‘In my mid-40s I joined a band, and slowly became more at ease in front of an audience’: Tim Dowling performing with Police Dog Hogan. Photograph: James Houlbrook/Alamy

But this isn’t real charisma. It’s more akin to what is sometimes termed the “charisma of office”: the trappings and ceremonies we use to invest uncharismatic leaders with authority. I have a microphone and, ideally, a lectern. There are lights on me. People have paid, and I have prepared my remarks.

None of this happens when I’m in a conversation with a couple of people I don’t know. Under those circumstances, I rarely know what to say.

“When you’re in those situations, does it have to be you doing all the talking?” Smith asks. “You could ask some really great questions. Tell me a little bit more about you, like you’re doing with me now. I feel very at ease with you. Thank you.”

I suspect this is Smith being charismatic by putting me at my ease, and I begin to examine how she’s doing it: she uses my name a lot; she canvasses my opinion on a wide range of subjects; she speaks confidently about confidence, making it sound easy.

“Confidence could be how you’re walking, Tim, it could be how you’re projecting your voice. It could be the gestures that you’re using. It could be just putting on your camera when you’re on a Zoom call.”

One consequence of talking to someone as charismatic as Smith is that, by the end, I feel pretty charismatic myself. She has bigged me up to such an extent that I feel ready to start a cult. According to Reid, this is all part of charisma’s virtuous circle: reinforcing the charismatic person’s brand. “I’ve made you feel good about yourself,” he says. “You’ve taken a positive energy away from that, and you share that with other people. And, as a consequence, my reputation flourishes.”

My positive energy lasts until I listen back to the recording of my conversation with Smith. One of us is charismatic, and it ain’t me. Clearly, I have no rizz.

Of course, charisma and rizz existed long before Weber popularised the word: it was just described in other ways. According to Potts, the English word that filled the gap throughout the 19th century was “prestige”, which, though it now connotes the impression afforded by status, originally referred to conjuring and deception. “Prestigious” was once a synonym for “practising juggling or sleight of hand”.

This brings us to another problem with charisma: it’s a bit of a con trick. Charismatic people can inspire faith and foster trust without deserving either. Potts writes about “the association of charismatic appeal with dictators, demagogues and cult leaders”. For good reason, charisma has a dodgy reputation.

“I can’t deny that it’s a recipe for disaster,” Reid says. “You only need to look at history for examples where whole nations have been led down a wrong path.” Both he and Smith admit they are sometimes asked to teach charisma to people with suspect motives. Smith tells me about a potential client she calls Dave, who wanted to use charisma techniques to mis-sell some kind of policy by phone. “I said, ‘Look, Dave – thank you so much, but that’s not what I do.’”

One way round the problem of what is sometimes labelled “dark charisma” is to exclude it from your definition. “Donald Trump, in terms of the definition that I ascribe to charisma, is not charismatic,” Reid says. “In terms of him genuinely being interested in other people, I don’t think that’s true.”

I don’t either, but I don’t think you can argue that Trump’s crude magnetism doesn’t count as charisma. You could, however, argue that the bulk of what we call charisma resides not in the charismatic, but in their audience. In A History of Charisma, Potts points to the post-Weber contention that “charismatic leaders are a creation of the people”.

And that, perhaps, is how charisma can sustain a definition wide enough to include people who are good listeners, and Hitler. Towards the end of our conversation, I tell Smith that charisma sounds like a lot of work, and that I’m not sure I want to make an impression when I walk into a room, in case I need to leave straight away. That would be easier, I say, if nobody noticed I’d been there in the first place.

“Bless you,” she says.

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