Review: How To Win Friends and Influence People

  • Sad Pip Makes Friends (double page spread) by Katharine Willis-Crowley (CA&D, 20

“The truth has to be made vivid, interesting, dramatic. You have to use showmanship.” - Dale Carnegie

This book is a classic textbook in human relations. When I was in high school, everyone I knew was given a copy by their parents, and in every case the book was promptly left on a shelf to collect dust. I remember my parents giving my sister a copy while I, the younger sister, scoffed with disdain. I am grateful for the opportunity to retract my scorn, which I had heaped generously on a small brown book using plain letters to pronounce what seemed like an officious and absurd claim.

How To Win Friends and Influence People was reprinted and updated last year (2012) with a much bolder cover to match the text. Reading it with quite a few more years’ experience of working in collaborative and group environments, I wish I had made less fun and listened to my parents’ advice. I would have saved myself a number of headaches and helped a number of projects run much more smoothly. It’s always embarrassing to admit this, but I’m following Dale Carnegie’s principle no. 3: If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. 

The style of the book is conversational, packed with anecdotes that hark back to boot-strapping America, a land waging war filled with striking union workers, factories and men who had secretaries and what Carnegie calls ‘horse sense’. The reprint has attempted to update the anecdotes and terminology, keeping the content relevant for a very different era. Warren Buffet proclaims, “It changed my life,” which provides some kind of testament to its continuing importance.

The writing is simple, clear and repetitive. The book is divided into four parts, which is a rhetorical device that harkens back to classical Rome. The content covers how to navigate arguments, win over others to your point of view, how to generate interest, and most interestingly, how to address mistakes without causing offence or arousing resentment or make others glad to do what you want. There is even an example of how to get a landlord to lower one’s rent.

The claims at times seem absurd: “Wouldn’t you like to have a magic phrase that would stop arguments, eliminate ill feeling, create good will and make the other person listen attentively?” Some people have called this book the textbook for social manipulation, but after close reading it becomes clear that the only way these principles can work is through a genuine interest in and care for other people. Carnegie repeats throughout, “Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise.” His suggestions only work when thinking in terms of the other’s point of view. 

The book is full to the brim with classic American charm and many anecdotes revolve around meetings with the President, appealing to the White House as the ultimate site of good manners and barometer for successful social relations. Being Canadian, I am somewhat seduced by this, but skeptical. I imagine that for a British reader it might seem outright ridiculous – I have no idea how well the authority in these matters translates culturally; I suspect not at all. However, so many examples are provided that the less relatable ones do not interfere with the message Carnegie wants to convey, which is that of empathy, consideration and positivity when working with others.

The book outlines very concrete tools and strategies for working well with others. It pitches these as methods for increasing one’s earning power, and given that it was originally published in 1937, it can be said that this book indicates one of the founding pillars of our understanding of social behaviour under capitalism. To clarify what I mean, I will repeat most of page 26 here:

“The words of Charles Schwab – the first person in the US to receive a salary of a million dollars a year – words that ought to be cast in eternal bronze and hung in every home and school, every shop and office in the land - words that children ought to memorize instead of wasting their time memorizing the conjugation of Latin verbs on the amount of annual rainfall in Brazil:

‘I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.’”

The book, aside from being full of useful advice (which may or may not increase one’s earning power – that remains to be seen) is fascinating to read as a promise for an era that seriously diverged from the vision and core principles of American capitalism identified by Dale Carnegie. Since reading the book, I’ve even had to sit through staff meetings at other jobs where Carnegie’s principles were regurgitated without any of the empathy, with only maximising profit in mind – rendering his system hollow and absurd. Reading this book is a fascinating measure of the times in which we live, and the editors had a challenging task in updating the content for a generation that has spent the majority of their lives in school, online, and very little time on a farm developing their ‘horse-sense’.