We Are Living in a Charisma Drought

It's the one thing you can't fake.

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Jennifer Schaffer
some pizzazz

There are so many ways to be charming, and many of them can be practiced and learned: You can mimic early Jane Fonda, or pepper your speech with sweet self-deprecating quips, or simply approach every conversation as though you’re divulging a delicious and forbidden secret.

But there’s really only one way to be charismatic: you’re simply conferred with it at birth, or (this is rarer) at some random interval later in life. Charisma comes from the Greek χάρισμα, meaning a “favor” or “gift,” and more specifically a God-given gift of a certain otherworldly quality, resembling elegance or grace. In other words, there is absolutely nothing you can do to court charisma, and even thinking about trying to guarantees it’ll never alight on your shoulders. It is fickle and evasive and impossible to replicate, and that is why it matters.

In our era of mass reproducibility, false scarcity, and — let’s call a spade a spade — rampant PHONIES, charisma is one of the few qualities that can’t be forged or forced. Do not listen to this demented and factually incorrect New York Times article from 2018: you cannot become more charismatic by “signaling information in a symbolic, emotional and value-based manner,” and Gandhi is a terrible example of it. Like talent, charisma is sprinkled with total randomness and disregard for the other gifts and flaws of the lucky few who receive it. Like talent, it can be wielded for good or evil; it can create fame and fortune or simply devour its host whole. Charisma is, I guess, a talent itself: a talent for being in the world. And we are living through an absolute goddamned drought of it.

I’d blame the internet and its petty, charmless creators, black holes of charisma, every last one of them, all trying so hard to grasp for it. But by now we all know that the internet is just the manifestation of our collective, rabid little id, so I blame all of us. I do. We’ve underappreciated the fundamental role of charisma in our society for far too long, and the gods (as well as the algorithms) have punished us. We’ve overemphasized all that can be faked: cocksureness and symmetry and digestible wit, and that entrancing, addictive quality that makes TikToks tick — this synthetic charisma substitute, this mash-up of shock and serotonin and some aural-visual massage being performed on our deep lizard brains that gets our heart rate up for people who are not insightful or interesting or good or cool. Karisma™. It’s like the Spice equivalent of charisma: a knock-off with dangerous consequences. There is a reason why many people you find entrancing online turn out to be real duds in person: they’ve gotten you high on Karisma. They lack the authentic supply.

True charisma thrives on the unexpected. There are a few beautiful, talented, and charismatic people, sure — historically, they become murderers, cult leaders, or pilots — but largely charisma packs its greatest punch via the element of ~surprise~. You think you’re simply speaking with another ordinary human mortal and then suddenly they’re stuck on a loop in your mind, and you’re possibly very in love with them?, and you’d follow their words and their actions anywhere, to a second location or straight off a cliff.

And while the charismatic do sometimes leverage their gift towards their own sinister aims, their charisma itself is a glowing moral-less orb, which, like an unseasonably sunny day after a dry-elbowed winter, draws you out and close, makes you feel somehow at ease, fuller, more complete. It makes even the most chaotic encounter (for the charismatic are often agents of chaos) feel edifying, pleasurable, right. In the presence of the charismatic, you are always exactly where you should be, and the right song is always playing.

For example, I once set my life on fire for a man who worked at a library basement and drank “morning wine,” because of the overpowering hit of dopamine his way of merely existing induced in me at our first encounter, as though I’d never met a human man before. My first week of high school, I watched a senior give an anti-drug presentation, as penance for getting caught smoking by the train tracks. I became so obsessed with her blazing, irresistible nonchalance that I continue to think of her in a “What Would Jesus Do?” capacity to this day. In both instances, the individuals at hand were perfectly fine by every reasonable metric, the circumstances of our interactions entirely banal. But by the metric of charisma, they were It — life-affirmingly (and life-threateningly) magnetic. The Real Deal.

Charisma hooks you before you realize you’re hooked. It’s the je ne sais quoi that makes the world go round. It’s a quality that goes above and beyond our unending dissection of vibes: it is the ur-vibe. It is the vibe that never goes off.

“But Jenn,” you say, exasperated, wagging your finger at the screen, “I am still not quite getting it, your thesis is rambling and unclear!” Fair enough, reader. You know it when you see it. So for good measure, I have included examples. This is a NON-EXHAUSTIVE list so do not burn me at the stake.

People who have charisma

  • Rihanna
  • John Mayer
  • Dennis Rodman
  • Cher
  • Liza Minnelli
  • Eartha Kitt
  • Kramer
  • My dog

People who have Karisma

  • Addison Rae
  • That other girl on TikTok
  • Everyone on your Instagram Discover page
  • Elon Musk
  • Ellen Degeneres
  • Gal Gadot
  • Kamala Harris
  • Michael Barbaro

Absolutely no charisma or Karisma

  • Every member of the British royal family
  • Peter Thiel
  • Ted Cruz
  • Ed Sheeran
  • Bill Gates

Sure, many people with charisma are evil. But I’m here to tell you that a world without charisma — or more specifically, a world where charisma has no impact; a world where charisma is dampened, muted, and ignored — is worse. So much worse. It’s no coincidence that our global charisma famine coincides with the age of smartphones and social media challenges and email newsletters. For who lacks charisma more than Big Tech’s parade of milquetoast CEOs? I would even go so far as to say these men and women are anti-charisma: they are pure, steely smarm, Karisma at its peak. They have created systemic barriers to charisma in their wiley click-clacky tools: whole sprawling faux-public online spaces guarded by opaque algorithms that privilege qualities that can be readily quantified, interpreted, duplicated, and tweaked.

Charisma is beautiful because it does not scale. It evades formula. It is random and irreplicable, and it feels good to be around, even when it’s destroying your life. Charisma at least gives you a good reason to drink the Kool-Aid; somehow, today’s pied pipers have managed to bypass any authentic appeal and get us to chug it all down anyway. Without charisma, the Kool-Aid turns to ashes in my mouth.

Some are saying that cigarettes are back, along with preppy style and the nuclear arms race. Is it too much to ask that charisma make a comeback too? Can the uncharismatic take a breather please? Because if I’m going to follow a monomaniacal leader into the abyss, I’d at least like to have the plausible deniability of their magnetism: I’d at least like to feel like I jumped off the edge for some element of je ne sais quoi.

For once, I’d like to feel pulled — rather than simply, boringly, predictably pushed.