Manipulators and and other significantly disturbed characters can be quite deceiving in their self-presentation. They can come across as amiable and charming. They can even appear to appreciate and value you. And when they mount their charm offensives, they can knock you off your feet and bowl you over. Only after they’ve gotten what they wanted are you likely to start seeing more of their true colors. But not all folks who mount charm offensives are offensive, reprehensible characters. And not all of the things that make a person attractive to us need be regarded with skepticism. As mentioned in the prior article in this series (see: Manipulators and Charm), it’s often difficult, however, to distinguish between a benignly charming person and a charmer harboring a nefarious hidden agenda. But there are some things to pay close attention to that can help you tell the difference, and that’s the focus of this week’s post.
There are lots of things we can find charming about someone. We might admire their wit or be drawn to their humor. We might envy their lightheartedness or apparent zest for life. We might find some of their physical characteristics both pleasing and alluring. And if we make the decision to become more deeply involved with someone solely or even primarily on these things, we have no one else to blame but ourselves if things don’t turn out very well in the end.
It’s also natural and not particularly unhealthy for someone to turn on the charm and put their best foot forward in the early stages of a relationship. Making a favorable impression is part of the “dance” of courtship. But the ultimate purpose of courtship is not wallow in those first, favorable impressions but to make a concerted effort to really know someone at a deeper level. That requires going beyond the charm and objectively sorting through all the dirty laundry. Before we give our hearts away, it’s more important to know who a person genuinely is in character than it is to be enamored of the manner in which they present themselves.
Psychopaths and the other disturbed character types harboring the most malignant form of narcissism tend to exude a superficial charm or glibness in their interpersonal manner. It often goes unnoticed as the huge red flag it is for the most dangerous kind of psychopathology, but it can be detected if you know just what to look for. The “smoothness” or social facility these individuals display is generally not matched by congruent and concomitant emotion. They may have a very easy “way with words” (sometimes accompanied by equally charming nonverbal gestures), but usually their smooth talk is not accompanied by any emotion that matches what they’re saying or that can be sensed and felt by others as genuine. Still, because they’re capable of deliberately letting down their own guard, and while doing so, simultaneously carrying out their charm offensive, you can easily doubt your gut instincts (thinking that they must be being genuine) and allow yourself to be unduly swayed.
The job of a “confidence man” is first and foremost to gain your trust. By opening themselves up and appearing vulnerable, and by expressing what appears to be interest in you and your welfare, you can feel like a fool for being hesitant. So, you go with your head and your ears instead of your gut (which is more likely to find the “charm” offensive in some way). Once you disregard your instincts, you’re effectively disarmed, and that’s when it’s game, set, and match for the con man (or woman).
Psychopaths have high social intelligence and awareness. Seeing themselves early on as a superior subspecies and finding us ordinary folks both interesting and amusing (although they also regard us as inferior due to our sensitivities and qualms), they’ve usually spent most of their lives studying how we operate. They know what makes us laugh, what makes us fearful, what excites us, what turns us off, and above all, what makes us vulnerable. Their game is to gain our confidence and prompt us to voluntarily disarm, so they can take what the want from us. After they’ve gotten what they want, there’s no more need for pretense.
In my book In Sheep’s Clothing, there’s a vignette about a man who, as the CEO of a company, knew how to make every employee feel like he liked and valued them. And in words and gestures, that’s the “message” everyone bought, hook, line, and sinker. But in reality this man had absolutely no use for people other than what they could possibly help him get in the way of power, money, and prestige. Eventually, that became more clearly apparent. But few saw it while he was doing his “schmoozing.” If they’d looked a little closer when he was saying things like “I really like the way you think!” – looked past the flattering smile and seductive twinkle in the eye – and paid attention to the lack of genuine emotion that might match the verbal protests of appreciation, they would have recognized his sweet talk was not a expression of genuine regard but rather a simple pitch for loyalty. And, as the those who’ve read the vignette already know, this man was himself loyal to no one. He was a seduction artist and confidence man par excellence.
Other examples of superficial charm or glibness can be found in my books Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome. And I’ll be talking about some high-profile examples of glib smooth-talkers whose lack of genuineness and authenticity is betrayed by their inability to display congruent emotion on Character Matters this Sunday evening.