Opinion guest column

Charm School — headed in the wrong direction?

Place more emphasis on social skills, less on job seeking

People at MIT, like people anywhere, get together for a variety of reasons: to enjoy each other’s company, to work, to play, to serve the community. The concern that prompts my writing is that Charm School, first organized more than 20 years ago as an enjoyable, playful, service-oriented IAP activity, has, to its detriment, been transformed into an event focusing more than it needs to on job-seeking skills and other manners in the professional world. These include “dining etiquette and table conversation during business dinners” and “effective email in the business world.” Work is only one part of our lives where table manners and email messages are important.

Apparently the Student Activities Office organizers have seen fit to transform this slightly crazy “bazaar” of offerings that (thankfully still) includes sessions on flirting, telling jokes, small talk, and making introductions into one with a primary emphasis on professional development. While personal charm has a role to play in academic and business success, its utility should not be the reason to develop it. How to handle things (the right fork or glass at table) and to choose one’s attire (dressing for success) are certainly important, but I believe that it is more important, in developing charm, to honor and enhance personal interactions. Of course it is useful to know basic social skills, but I hope that we learn and practice them because we care about each other, not because we are paid, or expect to be paid.

Business leaders are taught that you cannot manage what you cannot measure, but must we try to manage and measure everything? Not every thing that counts can be counted, and charm certainly counts. We can all, I hope, recall times when someone’s generous and kind presence made an unhappy moment bearable. Likewise, we remember happy times made exceptional by the joyful presence of family and friends.

Last year, it was made a requirement that students register for Charm School activities, in order to “track demographics,” in the words of the organizers. Do we “track demographics” when we have a party? I don’t think so. We invite people, maybe put up balloons, turn on some tunes, “cook up a storm” (or order out!) and hope guests show up, talk together, eat, dance and have fun.

Putting a primary emphasis on recording data de-personalizes our interactions. In the field of medicine, doctors and patients complain that the time spent actually talking and listening has substantially diminished with the introduction of digital records. In the field of education, in many districts, an experienced supervisor or mentor making classroom observations no longer just watches what goes on between teacher and students and makes notes on paper for later review and discussion. Instead, the observer must now use a tablet during the class session in order to answer a set series of quantifiable questions, and check boxes. In both these situations, something ineffable is lost.

The minor but essential interactions that can make our days pleasant, or in their absence make them very unpleasant, are at the core of charm. Do I think of the person coming after me through the door, look back, and hold it for him or her? Do I treat the store clerk like a person or like a warm-ish robot, an extension of the cash register? Do I greet the server at the café or just order my coffee, as if he or she were simply standing in the way of my caffeine infusion? An element of true charm is how well we treat people whom we don’t have to treat well. Of course we show respect to a prospective client or employer. Just as important is our respect for people with whom we have less formal interactions or who serve us in some way.

Charm School is not the only effort at MIT to improve the individual student’s experience at the Institute and strengthen our community. MIT Together, launched two years ago by Chancellor Grimson, seeks to eliminate the perceived stigma in asking for help. In a December, 2012 MIT News article, Grimson was quoted saying, “I hope that through MIT Together, students will better understand that all of us go through failures, experience self-doubt, have occasional stresses in our personal lives, and that seeking help and advice from others is a natural way of overcoming these challenges.”

Programs like Charm School and MIT Together should partner to offer events throughout the year. MIT can certainly organize, at various points during the term, rolling rallies combining activities on both charm and compassion. Pop-up help booths on various topics is another possibility. A third might be to make some elements of both initiatives part of Family Weekend. Doing this would increase collegiality, improve cooperation, intensify congeniality, irritate complacency and invigorate creativity. This is not a new suggestion, but perhaps timely, given the following:

In the Jan. 22 issue of Nature, Elizabeth Gibney reports that “Extreme” workloads plague scientists at the start of their careers and many struggle to maintain a work-life balance, particularly those academics who are parents. The undergraduate and graduate years are an ideal time to help students develop life skills, including social-emotional awareness, that will serve them well throughout their adult lives. Other community members benefit too, as we all can improve in these areas.

I am grateful to be able to share my perspective on the wonderful MIT tradition that is Charm School. I just don’t want to see it taken off track. Manners are important and can be taught, but charm and compassion can only be modeled and practiced. MIT needs more of all three.

Eve Sullivan — Retired Senior Editorial Assistant, Annals of Physics, and originator of “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear” a perennial Charm School favorite, now in the capable hands (and heart) of Constantine Psimopoulos, DAPER Fitness Director.