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Sociability • Social Virtues

Dale Carnegie — How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People is the title of possibly the most famous book of the twentieth century. It is also one of the books most routinely ridiculed by people who think they are clever. Why on earth, these people mutter, would an intelligent person need help with something as basic as that? And in any case, good people don’t need to win friends: they should already have them. Certainly they shouldn’t try to ‘influence’ them: they just need to say witty, intelligent things. But these were not the assumptions of a man far cleverer and more important than intellectual history has been prepared to allow.

Born in 1888 into a poor farming family in rural Missouri, Dale Carnegie left school in his teens. Rather than attend university, he spent years selling bacon and soap to people living on isolated ranches. He then got involved in adult education and spent tens of thousands of evenings giving talks to small audiences in out-of-the-way towns. With over-prominent ears and a prosaic hair-cut, Dale Carnegie was almost the anti-type of what we imagine a great and centrally important writer might be like. In 1936, when he was in his late forties, he summed up his views on being nice in a book that was ridiculed by intellectuals: How to Win Friends and Influence people.

Photo by Auntie P on Flickr

The issues he addresses are utterly basic. We spend vast parts of our lives trying to build relationships, hoping to get others to appreciate who we are, to understand us and grasp what we have to offer them; and yet our efforts are, so often, far from successful. Carnegie pinpointed things we desperately need to know and get good at but which had been largely neglected by previous writers. 

What he suggests sounds entirely like common sense: smile; remember someone’s name; listen to them; think about what they want; don’t make your success come at the price of theirs; don’t tell others they are wrong; get to understand (and appreciate) why they think as they do — especially if it strikes you as misguided. And yet, these are precisely the things we generally forget to do. He recognised, with astonishing clarity, how naive-sounding the advice we need really is. Our culture wants us to imagine that what we need to know are very complicated things: a university will make sure its science students understand the theory of relativity or that its humanities graduates are acquainted with Foucault’s views on 19th century prisons. We’re quite good at abstruse things. And yet we trip up on issues that are diametrically opposite in character: that are simple, emotional, interpersonal. They involve not demonstrating how much we know, but rather showing how much we can like other people. 

Knowledge of the truth is a tiny fraction of what it takes to make truth effective in the world. What we need in spades is charm and an ability to persuade others that we are on their side.

It is never enough to feel haughtily superior or, as unfortunately, pessimistically inferior — and simply wait for others to come to us. We have to master the art of winning people over to our side. We are persuaded to change our minds only by people we like and who we feel love and understand us — that is, by people who have taken Carnegie’s vital lessons to heart. 

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