Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People is one of the best selling self-help books of all time. The book has influenced a wide range of people over the years, from Warren Buffett to Charles Manson. Those two people, Buffet and Manson, really express the weirdness that is Carnegie’s book in the modern era. Let’s dig into it.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
How to Win Friends & Influence People is book you can read in a couple of different ways, and that little ampersand divides the two intentions of the book far more than was originally intended. While people like Buffett praise it for its management techniques, it’s also easy to see how one could use those same techniques for evil. Which is to say, depending on who you are, you can read Carnegie’s book in two distinct ways: to win friends or to influence people. Which route you take can change how you feel about the book, yourself and your relationships.
Who This Book Is For
So, there’s a bit of a split between exactly who How to Win Friends & Influence People is for, and the Pollyannaish philosophy that guides a lot of the principles here are clearly influences on more recent best selling self-help books like The Secret. An extreme optimism comes through in a lot of Carnegie’s techniques, which include suggestions to smile more and to give honest appreciation. How to Win Friends offers a lot of solid advice for people who deal with business relationships or do a lot of public speaking. It’s also routinely cited as a great way to get over social anxiety because it outlines a few simple techniques that make meeting new people a little easier.
On the flipside, How to Win Friends is also packed with all kinds of subtle manipulation techniques, so if that’s more your thing, you’ll find a plethora of tips here. The most obvious example of this comes in chapter seven, which concentrates on ways to “let the other person feel like the idea is his or hers”. That idea might sound familiar to anyone who watched Inception.
What You’ll Get
According to the book jacket, inside How to Win Friends & Influence People is a guidebook for making a good first impression, good ways to criticise people, tricks for being better at conversation, and a handful of other things that essentially boils down to “dealing with people”.
Carnegie shares these tips in a format that’s since become pretty standard in self-help books: open with how this tip will change your life, provide an abundance of examples of where this has worked in the real world and close with single-sentence summation. Each chapter takes on a single principle and they’re then grouped into larger themes like “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People”, or “Be A Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offence or Arousing Resentment”. The book is also a tool in the Dale Carnegie training courses, but those courses are by no means required.
In short, you’ll get a bunch of tips for navigating small talk, closing business deals and negotiating to get what you want.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
Since I’m not particularly interested in improving my sales techniques, I found the theme of the book really revolved around one tip: pay attention to people because people like when you pay attention to them. Wikipedia has a list of all the one sentence “tips” in the book, if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, and they’re really often common sense tactics. For example, here are the six ways to make people like you:
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.
- Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.
It’s all pretty simple. While it might have been revolutionary to hear that people tend to like you more when you listen to them in 1936, it’s a little silly to read now because it all seems to obvious.
While Carnegie himself is likeable enough throughout the book, his suggestions are often either too simplified or overwrought. For example, it’s probably not shocking that one of the primary pieces of advice for winning friends is to smile more, but the advice goes a bit too far for my liking:
You don’t feel like smiling? Then what? Two things. First, force yourself to smile. If you are alone, force yourself to whistle or hum a tune or sing. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy.
If that advice sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the primary tip in pretty much every self-help book on the planet. Of course, the benefit of smiling more does have some scientific merit, but overdoing it tends to have the opposite effect. Regardless, the whole thing seems to rely a little too much on optimism for my liking.
Still, that’s not to say a lot of How to Win Friends isn’t good stuff. I certainly agree that the best way to get people to like you is to show earnest interest in them, listen to them, and ask the right types of questions. Likewise, a lot of Carnegie’s advice for bringing people around to your way of thinking really boils to just being nice and sympathetic to other’s points of view. All this is great, though I often found myself nodding off while reading through the excess of examples that Carnegie goes through to prove pretty simple ideas. While the core of his suggestions are still often applicable, 80 years later, the examples come off as dry and outdated. They include all kinds of things that are hard to identify with now, like writing down birthdays, an extensive example about collecting stamps and a story about politely disagreeing with a policeman.
Despite the lack of sophistication in some of these suggestions, it’s all pretty harmless. The evil portion tends to come in when you skip the whole “earnestness” part embedded in a lot of Carnegie’s suggestions.
For example, when Carnegie suggests encouraging people to talk about themselves, it’s easy to see how when taken the wrong way, it comes across as acting fake to get what you want. Likewise, the notion of “winning” friends turns meeting people into a game, which makes friendship sound like a trivial thing. When read this way, the advice in the book often comes off as exploitive at best, manipulative at its worst. The worst example of this comes from Chapter Seven, which is the chapter Charles Manson used the most. In fact, according to Manson biographer Jeff Guinn, Manson used many of Carnegie’s techniques word-for-word.
“Chapter Seven: How to Get Cooperation” sounds pretty harmless, but the key takeaway is the aforementioned “Let the other person feel like the idea is his or hers.” Let’s take a look at the oddest example in the chapter:
Letting the other person feel that the idea is his or hers not only works in business and politics, it works in family life as well. Paul M. Davis of Tulsa, Oklahoma, told his class how he applied this principle:
“My family and I enjoyed one of the most interesting sightseeing vacation trips we have ever taken. I had long dreamed of visiting such historic sites as the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and our nation’s capital. Valley Forge, James-town and the restored colonial village of Williamsburg were high on the list of things I wanted to see.
“In March my wife, Nancy, mentioned that she had ideas for our summer vacation which included a tour of the western states, visiting points of interest in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. She had wanted to make this trip for several years. But we couldn’t obviously make both trips.
“Our daughter, Anne, had just completed a course in U.S. history in junior high school and had become very interested in the events that had shaped our country’s growth. I asked her how she would like to visit the places she had learned about on our next vacation. She said she would love to. “Two evenings later as we sat around the dinner table, Nancy announced that if we all agreed, the summer’s vacation would be to the eastern states, that it would he a great trip for Anne and thrilling for all of us. We all concurred.”
To recap, the example describes tricking a wife into taking the holiday the guy wants by using his child to plant the idea in the wife’s mind. Maybe I’m the wholesome one in this case, but the tactic sounds manipulative to me. Read the wrong way, this example, alongside pretty much everything else in the “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” section has a pretty evil tone to it. Which all goes to say that when read How to Win Friends & Influence People with an eye for manipulation, it’s a guidebook for getting what you want.
How you incorporate Carnegie’s lessons into your life is totally up you. When it comes to How to Win Friends & Influence People, there are two very distinct readings that come from why you’re reading it. If you’re in sales or deal with people on a business level, it’s a framework that many find useful, especially as they’re learning the ropes of dealing with people in a business setting. Likewise, if you struggle with friendships because it’s unclear how to respond in certain social situations, it provides a guide, albeit a simplistic one, for doing so. Yet, on the other end, if you’re looking for ways to get what you want by any means necessary, it certainly does that as well. There are manipulation tactics here meant to persuade people to your way of thinking.
Personally, I find a lot of Carnegie’s suggestions either too simplistic or insincere. I’d argue that insincerity is actually ok in a lot of circumstances, but not in the ones I tend to find myself in. While I’ve certainly struggled plenty with “dealing with people” or social anxieties, I don’t really feel any better equipped for dealing with those struggles after reading this.