Why Do We Keep Listening to Dale Carnegie?

How to Win Friends and Influence People

First published in 1937, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People is one of the best-selling business books of all time: since publication, it has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. To put that in perspective, that’s more than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Gruffalo, or The Joy of Sex, but less than Love You Forever or Pride & Prejudice.

Carnegie wrote the book during the Great Depression, and one of its main aims was to help people secure and keep corporate jobs. It includes advice such as, “Your smile is a messenger of your goodwill” and “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” It also includes chapters on avoiding conflict, providing criticism, and winning people over to your way of thinking.

What is particularly remarkable is that, despite its age and dated anecdotes, readers keep coming back to Carnegie’s book.

A quick Google search for the title brings up numerous musings from the last few years—from articles in The New York Times to user posts on Reddit—about how Carnegie’s advice might still be relevant.

But is Carnegie’s advice really that useful?

From the Depression to the Digital Age: Is Dale Carnegie Relevant?

New Forms of Power

Perhaps one of the chief appeals of Carnegie’s book when it first arrived was that it advocated for a different form of power and influence, one predicated on kindness rather than force. As writer Jessica Weisberg explains in The New Yorker,

“Carnegie had found that men were socialized to think that being brutish and loud was the only way to demonstrate readiness for power.”

She adds, “Offices functioned like one perpetual rush session, like laboratories of aggressive showmanship.”

Carnegie instead insists that kindness and consideration of alternate perspectives are not signs of weakness in the workplace but are excellent ways to further one’s own goals and build relationships. His book anticipates later shifts in thinking about corporate power in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as theories about servant leadership and advocacy for inclusivity and diversity in the workplace.

How to Succeed in the Age of Social Media

While digital media has greatly changed the way people communicate, many contemporary readers have seen Carnegie’s advice as more important, rather than less, as a result of these changes. An updated version of Carnegie’s book—How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age—asserts that, with the surge in use of social media, Carnegie’s advice is crucial, because people need to be reminded that

“the quickest path to personal or professional growth is not in hyping yourself to others but in sharing yourself with them.”

It stresses that digital communication, like other forms of interpersonal communication, should not be gimmicky, but exhibit generosity and trustworthiness, convey gratitude, and add value to those on the other end.

Under the Influence: The Limits of How to Win Friends & Influence People

Being Genuine (to Get What You Want)

Carnegie insists that being genuine is essential—his first principle is to become genuinely interested in other people. He differentiates between appreciation and flattery: “One is sincere and the other insincere.”

The insistence on sincerity, however, is not always reflected in Carnegie’s anecdotes about US barons of industry.

For example, when he asserts that the best way to influence others is to talk in terms of what they want, he tells a story about Andrew Carnegie (no relation). Andrew wagered $100 that he could get his nephews, who were away at Yale, to write home, without even asking them to do it. He wrote each of them a letter, mentioning at the end that he had enclosed a $5 bill, which he neglected to actually include. He received letters back from both nephews rather quickly, enquiring about the missing money, and Andrew won his bet.

The anecdote seems to justify the criticisms of Dale Carnegie’s book—that his strategies aim not to build relationships but only secure personal gain. Andrew’s letters are not intended to further his connections with his two nephews or help their worried mother, but to get the boys to do something that financially benefits the one influencing them.

Melody Wilding, in her 2018 review of How to Win Friends, draws a similar conclusion about Carnegie’s strategies: “Influencing people for your own gain has the air of sleazy online marketing or the techniques of pickup artists and scammers.”

This same feeling of self-centred manipulation seems apparent in Carnegie’s advice elsewhere in the book to “let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers” when trying to get someone to come around to your way of thinking. To make matters even more suspicious, we know that Charles Manson took one of Dale Carnegie’s courses, and used some of its strategies to help convince women to kill for him.

Are we the objects of Carnegie’s own influence techniques in our continued following of him?

Dorothy Carnegie & Women of Influence

One of the other challenges with Carnegie’s book is that it was written for a primarily male audience, and some of its central ideas—about cultivating an appearance of subservience, for example—might be counterproductive for women in business.

Last year, attendees at a government-led women’s leadership conference in Newfoundland and Labrador criticized the distribution at the conference of a pamphlet with excerpts from How to Win Friends.

The book’s advice not to “criticize, condemn, or complain” and to “smile more” to improve appearances was viewed as lacking a nuanced, present-day understanding of gender and mental health.  

There is a long tradition in western culture of valuing women who are demure, and while Carnegie’s attempts to temper male domineering are important, what are women to take away from his book, if they wish to resist gender stereotypes?

Dale Carnegie’s partner, Dorothy Carnegie, in a 1970s New York Times interview, touched on this issue indirectly when she spoke about trying to get off the ground a workshop for women in business run by women in business. She finally had to stop offering the course because there was difficulty in getting corporations to spend money on women’s professional development.

Dorothy Carnegie also explains that Dale had wanted to write one more chapter to the book, about the times when its advice won’t work:

“What do you do when all else fails? Do you let somebody stomp on you with cleats on their boots?”

How to Succeed: Read Critically

One of Carnegie’s biographers, Steven Watts, argues that the problem with How to Win Friends is that people who buy into Carnegie’s strategies may end up placing more value on relationships and the gain they might provide, and neglect issues of morality and social justice. That is, they could lose sight of the bigger picture of human experience and responsibility.

For contemporary readers to gain value from the book, they may need to be selective.

Which of Carnegie’s strategies no longer make sense in a society where people change jobs every few years, where big corporations are not the only employers, and where the demographics of the workforce are much more varied (thankfully) than they were in 1937?

If there are some tenets that still have particular relevance, in a society where political wars are waged on Twitter and leadership seems to be more about appearances than action, perhaps it is those principles of attempting humility and understanding: if you are wrong, say you’re wrong; be aware of your own areas for development, as well as your own strengths; and try—genuinely try—to understand the perspective of others, not just to achieve monetary goals, but to build strong relationships where both parties learn something and find opportunities for growth.

This doesn’t mean sacrificing all, including your ethics, for relationships, whether professional or personal. It means avoiding manipulation and trying to actually connect, while at the same time refusing to put up with those cleated boots that might be aimed in your direction.

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