Charisma Is a Service

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Written By Pinang Driod

Last March, the Stanford computer-science student Bryan Chiang posted a video on Twitter (now called X) of a project he called “rizzGPT,” which intended to provide “real-time charisma.” Essentially, it combines an augmented-reality device and ChatGPT to listen to your conversations and display what you should say next. The idea was to outsource charisma—that alluring, mysterious, stubbornly human trait that draws people to you. The prototype’s inability to say anything charming in the video demonstration emphasized just how elusive true magnetism can be.

Still, the project was only the latest in a lineage of attempts to distill charisma for an individual’s benefit—perhaps as a tool to win people’s attention, vote, or money. In the 1920s, the German sociologist Max Weber’s posthumous writings introduced our modern understanding of charisma as authority based on exceptionalism, a quality that distinguishes popular politicians. In 1936, Dale Carnegie published his seminal self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, a guide to being liked and listened to; a professional-development program based on his teachings persists to this day. Now the YouTube channel Charisma On Command offers tutorials on how to reverse-engineer social power by, say, studying the way the Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston transforms in the show from a meek chemistry teacher into a commanding drug kingpin by straightening his shoulders, speaking slowly, and maintaining eye contact. There’s a whole charisma-commercialization complex full of coaches, authors, and now computer scientists, ready to teach you social hacks to get what you want.

Yet charisma does not have to be self-serving. In Greek, charisma translates as a “gift.” Rather than keep that gift to exploit for themselves, some charismatic people disperse it. They hand it out at social events, such as the holiday parties at this time of year, and use it to guide the energy of a shared occasion. I call these people vibe popes. Consider it a nondenominational title for those who unite people under the divine light of a good time.

Vibe popes offer warmth, emotional intelligence, and social generosity at a time when going out and meeting people isn’t what it used to be. Evidence suggests that rather than emerging from the loneliness created by the coronavirus pandemic, many people have become habituated to it. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in May of last year, 35 percent of respondents said that socializing has become less important to them. In a Forbes Health survey from around the same time, 29 percent of people said that their biggest source of anxiety when socializing was “not knowing what to say or how to interact.” Another study determined that people now underestimate the benefits they will feel after having an in-person conversation versus spending time on their phone. I know that over the past year or two I have gone home from too many parties wondering why nobody asked me any questions about myself, or why everyone was on their devices all night.

These are problems that the vibe pope can help solve. These folks are the guardians of the party’s communal energy. Their charisma is mature and thoughtful, not narcissistic. They can subtly refine and recalibrate social dynamics by introducing strangers, tweaking the lights, or suggesting the next activity—all without stealing focus from the moment itself. They’re observant, present, and able to recognize when someone needs context for a conversation or a setup for their turn to hold court. They understand that having a good time in a group setting is not always a mystical, spontaneous occurrence—sometimes it requires considered facilitation.

The vibe pope is often the center of the party, but not, crucially, out of a desire for the spotlight. Sometimes they take the mantle happily and intuitively, other times because they feel no one else will step up to the plate. But because this kind of charisma is selfless, vibe popes can go overlooked. Last Christmas, a song by the comedic musician Farideh gained traction on social media. In it, she sings about that “special time of year” when “nobody seems to know where the magic comes from.” Then she delivers the punch line: “The magic of the season is your mom.” The song drew attention to the invisible but intense work it can take to cultivate good vibes and to fulfill the unconscious expectations of a group of people. Festivities require planning, decorating, cooking, cleaning. They also need people to set an emotional tone. When we don’t think about the labor behind building community, both practical and spiritual, it can become a quiet burden to whomever bears it. Hosting is a form of labor. So is vibe papacy.

And yet, genuine human warmth is not something we can outsource, regardless of how much the charisma industry might try. The self-help authors and content creators are right, though, when they describe sociability as a skill that anyone can improve on. Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, argues that honing our interpersonal skills is a constant process. In the book Permission to Feel, he writes that most of us are not innately attuned to our feelings or to those of the people around us. Selfless charisma, therefore, isn’t just a couple of flashy anecdotes trotted out at celebratory occasions; it’s a conscious sensitivity to the subtle, ever-changing alchemy between us and whomever we’re around.

I find this hopeful, though. Despite the havoc of the pandemic, and life’s inevitable periods of awkwardness or alienation, we can always find our way back to fulfilling connections. And once we do, the gift of charisma can be ours to share.

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