Charm school for men teaches the art of the pickup

What's Your Sign?

Charm school for men teaches the art of the pickup, or keeping the conversation (and the kino) going
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

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Charm School Boot Camp instructor Dan Williams — or the Social Hitchhiker, as he's known in the pickup community, is offering the lesson of the day to a table of men at the Bamboo Hut in North Beach on a recent Friday night.

"OK guys," he says, "I don't want to see you alone. You know what we call that — lonesome row. I don't want to see you standing alone, ever.

[Podcast: Reyhan Harmanci talks to two pickup artists.]


"Also, don't end a conversation too early. Don't end a conversation before someone, like, pushes you away and says, 'Go away,' " he says, grinning. "Seriously, you can talk to someone for much longer than you think."

The five students, ranging in age from 22 to late 40s, and ranging in career from college student to financier, nod. Their faces are tight. Each has paid $1,600 to spend two and half days learning the art of the pickup from Charisma Arts, a company founded by one of the best-known names in the pickup world, Wayne Elise, a.k.a. Juggler. They have spent most of Friday afternoon in a small room in the Westin St. Francis Hotel, getting to know each other, their instructors and the basic tenets of the Juggler method. They've learned some new words — "kino" means touching, "PUA" means "pickup artist," "SOI" means "statement of interest," "the vacuum" is the space in conversation that happens after you ask a question. They're role-played and checked in about their feelings. They've asked many, many questions. Some have taken notes.

But now it's time to take those lessons into the field.

While the venue's atmosphere screams "party" with red lights, tiki torches and dance music, the feeling at the table is icy. The increasingly crowded bar seems miles away and a hundred feet tall from the point of view of the seated apprentices.

"OK, guys," says Chad de la Vega, another instructor, sounding like a coach firing up his team of second-stringers heading onto the field for a maiden scrimmage. "Go out there! Go!"

One by one, the men, who asked not to be identified, push themselves out of the round booth and toward the bar. Two of the students pair off and talk to each other while eyeing the crowd. One of the younger students lingers a moment alone at the end of the bar before he takes a few tentative steps toward a woman sitting alone. He straightens his shirt and then leans in toward her.

The two instructors sit back in the booth and nod approvingly. He looks awkward, fidgeting, eyes clearly focused on a spot behind the bar rather than the woman's face, but it's still a success. He's approached a stranger and started talking. He's on his way.

But as the weekend unfolds, something strange happens: The men stop talking about women. They become focused on a more distant goal, secondary to the immediate rewards of simple socializing. For these five students and countless other men who have been drawn into the "seduction community" by reading Neil Strauss' bestselling book, "The Game," social anxiety hinders more than their dating life. They have come together because, in the words of a 26-year-old seminar participant, they "suck at communication."

And at the end of the weekend, the tally of phone numbers (for the record, the group of five collected a total of three numbers and one impromptu coffee date) doesn't even figure in the final analysis, as the men go around in a circle and talk about their expectations at the start of the weekend and what they feel they accomplished. "I'm not a virgin anymore when it comes to socializing," said one happy student.

There was a lot of talk about "feeling good" and "opening up" and "learning about myself." One man spoke at length about his tendency to be selfish in his interactions, and how he needs to become more empathetic with others. Hugs abounded. The weekend's mascot seemed to be more Robert Bly than Don Juan.

The response of the students doesn't surprise the instructors. "We tell people, it's a little bit of a trick," says Williams. "They come in here to learn how to talk to women and we teach them how to talk to everyone."

Charisma Arts is more demure than most of the schools of the seduction community, or as it's known, the Community. As chronicled in "The Game," the Community got its start in the late '80s with posts on online message boards by a man named Ross Jeffries, who adopted hypnotic techniques called "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" to develop a pickup method he named "Speed Seduction." As other message boards sprung up, other names emerged over the past six years — Mystery, Juggler, Papa, Tyler Durden — who wrote to each other, met each other, and tried to find fail-safe ways to have success with women — often narrowly defined as having sex with them. Strauss, a New York Times writer who abandoned his identity as Neil Strauss, taking on the moniker "Style," brought that world to the mainstream with his Times article and book, which has been optioned as a movie.

Unlike the routine-heavy Mystery method, the aggressive cocky-funny David D'Angelo method, the hypnotic Speed Seduction technique or any number of copy-cat sites, Charm School focuses on the elusive goal of "being yourself."

On the first afternoon, de la Vega laid out the fundamental rule of the Juggler method: Everyone is interesting. "It's your job to find out what's unique and special about everyone you talk to," de la Vega says, as the group stares at him. "We don't teach routines. And we don't want you to be performing all the time — the conversation should be 50-50. You can have girls laughing and laughing but if they don't put in any effort, they're not committed. It's like a TV show — you can always turn it off."

Once the "set" is opened, the name of the game is reward and escalate; with every step forward conversationally, there should be steps forward physically (kino!). But the emphasis remained on conversational skills that would pertain equally to men and women. It wasn't until the third and final day that flirting techniques were put forth — the "push and pull," where positive statements are couched as negative to create humor or tension, and "sexual barriers" are introduced, as in "I want to kiss you but I'm afraid too many people are watching."

"I'm not going to lie," Williams said. "I'm a man and I want sex and I'm probably going to want it faster than the woman. But this is a respectful way of making my intentions known."

After a long Friday in the classroom, and Friday night in the field, where the group hopped to the Velvet Lounge after spending time at the Bamboo Hut, Saturday brought no relief for the guys. This is Boot Camp, after all. After the events of the night were parsed through at a coffee shop (no one did more than converse with their quarry, although all the men reported increased confidence after being forced to interact with strangers for three hours), it was time for a new lesson: daytime pickups. The troop headed over to Borders off Union Square to start chatting up book lovers.

With its structured rules, tight hierarchy and reliance on code words, the seduction game reeks of adolescent male bonding rituals. As Strauss notes in "The Game," "There is nothing more bonding than picking up girls together. It is the basis for great friendship. Because afterward, when the girls are gone, you can finally give each other the high-five you've been holding out since you met them … It's not just the sound of skin hitting skin; it's the sound of brotherhood."

The successful professional PUAs, such as Juggler, recognize this and to some degree exploit it: all three instructors of Charm School Boot Camp were at one time customers of Charm School Boot Camp. Graduates of Boot Camp have access to private message boards where they can ask questions and tell stories of life post Boot Camp as well as a one-hour phone call with an instructor. The instructors say it's common for graduates to keep in touch and to hang out long after the seminar is over.

As for this group, it seems unlikely that any PUAs will emerge. All the participants said that the lack of routines or complicated manipulations were what attracted them to the Juggler method in the first place. But it's easy to see how one could get seduced by the seduction game. In an e-mail sent a week after the course, the 26-year-old student raves, "I went from a guy who was scared to talk to a stranger because I didn't know what to say, to a guy who is scared to talk to a stranger because the stranger is gonna start opening up and it's just so odd to me since I have never in my life had people open up to me," but ends the e-mail on a darker note.

"The only thing I'm scared of every minute of my life after the workshop, is that I will go back to being my old self," he says. The solution to that problem? He will "keep working on the method."

E-mail Reyhan Harmanci at

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