Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dale Carnegie Reconsidered

Unless you’re embarking on a career in monk hood, chances are, you may have to interact with other people at some point during the day. And you are not guaranteed an easy ride. Even if you are someone who loves people, and understands people, the best of us can still be emotional, unpredictable, and unstable. Whatever the complexities in our behaviour, we are always forced to interact with others. So there is always a probability of friction. (And not always the friction that Harlequin’s are made of.)  Interpersonal skills, let's face it, are as necessary in job interviews as they are at family dinners. Because of this challenge, I recently picked up Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1981).

Carnegie originally self-published his work in 1936 and it went on to sell over fifteen million copies. With so many social trends, and self-help crazes, coming and going, I was especially curious as to why and how this work still had a home on bookshelves today. Perhaps there's a good reason. It offers very relevant common sense about how to strategize with phenomenon that will never change: inherently complex human emotions.

How to Win Friends is divided into four sections: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, Six Ways to Make People Like You, How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, and Be a Leader. In each portion, Carnegie delivers several concise essays, each one concluding with a sound principle to support each objective. For instance, in the first section, he examines the art of handling people. Carnegie reminds us that the best communication comes with an effort to understand the other. But the advice that resonated most with me was to “never assume” that you understand. This chapter suggests not to judge someone who maybe short tempered, or otherwise unpleasant, because we might not have any idea of what they are going through. They could be going through hell, a break-up, a rough morning, the loss of a loved one. Carnegie tells us that “[i]nstead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do.” 

Going forward into the sections that focus on winning friends and recruiting others, he reminds us of a very basic human need people have to feel important. He doesn't mean feeling important in that narcissistic way, but more in our simple desire to feel appreciated and relevant. While none of us ever forget our need for validity, we tend to forget that almost everyone else out there shares this need. While offering tips on how to meet people like yourself and winning them over to your way of thinking, Carnegie’s simple advice of showing interest, letting others speak, asking questions, and even smiling, are so painfully obvious, that our need for reeducation is almost embarrassing. His thoughtful counsel seems even more necessary in our detached, self-focused culture. Through it, I began to realize the value of eye contact, conversation, and just being more pleasant. 

Dale Carnegie
While I did come across some critics who interpreted Carnegie as trying to coach us in being phony smooth operators, I believe what he means is quite the contrary. Repeatedly he stresses not to give others shallow flattery because people are basically not stupid and will see right through it. Therefore, being genuine and giving “honest, [and] sincere appreciation” engages you with people more effectively. The only difficulty I find with How to Win Friends and Influence People may be in its diction. Although it's been revised, the book was obviously written during the 1930s, equipped with a lingering rosy air that accompanies the chapters. Most of the dialogue seems as though it were plucked from a Saturday Evening Post magazine.

I would also emphasize that the work is not a scripture for success. While interpersonal skills are necessary, I still put my faith in a certain degree of education, experience, and intelligence which needs to accompany the reader. Yet, a refresher course on how to treat others, is definitely in store. After all, while the world continually becomes a very different place, human nature stays very much the same.

– Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that Dale Carnegie has something useful to say. He was very observant.