Welcome to an exercise in nuance. . .
(If you feel so inclined, please add your two centimes to the conversation because, according to My-Reason-For-Living-In-France, I’m opening up a discussion that, particularly at a French dinner party, could be debated for hours. Well, you know, we do live in France where conversation is considered a fine art.)
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “charm” and what it really means to be charming. Like so many words in French, it’s not easy to specifically define the adjective.
Let’s see what the French and English dictionaries have to say as a jumping off point:
Qui plaît extrêmement ; plein de grâce, d’agrément : Une charmante attention.
Charming: Very pleasant or attractive.
Synonyms: delightful, pleasing, pleasant, agreeable, likeable, endearing, lovely, lovable, adorable, cute, sweet, appealing, attractive, good-looking, prepossessing; striking, alluring, delectable, ravishing, winning, winsome, fetching, captivating, engaging, enchanting, entrancing, fascinating, bewitching, beguiling, spellbinding, hypnotizing, mesmerizing, seductive, desirable, irresistible. . .
You will note a major discrepancy between the French and English definitions, which I find fascinating. Included in the English synonyms are: cute, good-looking, lovely, attractive, fetching and ravishing.
Certainly, in any language, a charming man or woman could be handsome or beautiful, but — and this has been explained to me at length by MRFLIF as well as French friends — physical attractiveness on its own never constitutes the beguiling quality of charm.
“Charm is in a voice, a sparkle in the eyes, gestures, kindness. . . so many things,” MRFLIF said.
He then pointed out one of the most revealing aspects of the French language: the nuances of intonation. Yes in some ways we have that in English, but less so I think.
One could say a man or a woman is charming, but by intonation indicate that it was the only adjective that wasn’t entirely pejorative while at the same time being rather ambiguous.
Enthusiastic emphasis on the word indicates the magic of an individual’s charm.
Some argue, and one cannot help but agree, that there are two types of charm: “genetic” and learned. We’ve all seen babies and small children who ooze charm long before they understand the power it holds. Then there is the other type of charm where we learn and cultivate good manners and kindness for example.
Still, those children will need to learn how to channel their inherent charm with lessons in good manners and generosity.
The beauty of charm is that it is ageless, it is a quality that never dissipates over time. As a friend of ours said, he would rather sit next to a charming, interesting woman of 80-plus at a dinner party than a gorgeous, though vapid, young woman who had nothing to say, nothing to make her fascinating.
When I reminded MRFLIF of our friend’s comment he said that he (our friend) would find anyone charming who allowed him to talk about himself at length.
When you think about it though, making someone feel important, valued by posing questions and listening to the responses could be another aspect of charm.
Surely the person on the receiving end probably feels charmed and thus finds the interlocutor charming.