The Gist: Honestly appreciate people.
A review of How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
If you’d like to be liked, Dale Carnegie says you already know the “greatest winner of friends the world has ever known.” Indeed, “You may meet him tomorrow coming down the street. When you get within ten feet of him, he will begin to wag his tail. If you stop and pat him, he will almost jump out of his skin to show you how much he likes you.” Yes, if you want to win friends and influence people, take as your model the family dog.
Figure 1. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx.
Carnegie’s fundamental advice in one of the best selling books of all time is really very simple: honestly appreciate people. Whenever you are going to talk to someone – even or perhaps especially if it’s a difficult conversation – think: what do you like about this person? At the very least, that will put you in the right mindset. And then as you meet, if you happen to think of something that is true, positive, and would be appreciated by the person, share it! As Megan McArdle observes, “‘You are amazing and here’s why’ never gets old.”
Figure 2. In college, I got an internship with the White House Office of Political Affairs, which reported to Karl Rove. I told my grandmother what I’d be doing that summer and she, a lifelong Democrat, said that she could think of something nice to say about nearly everyone – but not Karl Rove. I inquired, “What about Stalin?” She replied, “He had a nice mustache.”
A related mandate is to embrace curiosity and take a genuine interest in others. After all, everyone you meet knows something you don’t. (Unless you’re a teenager. Then you know everything already.) Personally, I am fascinated by what people actually do in their job day to day, rather than simply the topline on their resume – someone may tell you she’s a teacher, but of what topics and what ages and how many kids does she see per day and how is she evaluated and what does she think of homeschooling and, my gosh, I have a thousand questions!
Carnegie advises that there’s another benefit: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Forget the basic small talk about the weather or the weekend. Move beyond the standard “how’s it going” “fine, you?” interaction. Caroline Webb advises to ask open questions “that can’t be answered with a yes or a no” and invite people “to share their thoughts, motivations, or feelings, rather than merely facts.” Find out what makes people come alive!
Figure 3. I once had lunch with a man who most came alive when recalling his recreational visits to graveyards. Ironic? Sure. Atypical? Different from every other meal I’ve ever had. But bear in mind that one of the most famous subjects of classical literature came alive from graveyard visits.
You may recall that this is a neat echo of Carnegie’s wonderful advice for giving a speech: find your passion and you can connect with an audience. Find your conversation partner’s passion and they can connect with you! You can even just directly ask: what are you currently excited about? What are you spending time thinking about? The results are often extraordinarily interesting. And Carnegie reminds us, “the royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.” If it’s a commonality, you have a ready friendship. If it’s not, you can learn something new.
Carnegie published his book in 1936 so we might add a particular exhortation: put away your phone and commit to being fully present with anyone you meet – one study has found that even the mere presence of your digital device on a table can lessen people’s feelings of connection. Focus instead entirely on the person in front of you – really intentionally listen to what they have to say and try to understand what values or goals you might have in common.
Furthermore, be generally positive and specifically compassionate. Carnegie mentions you can’t wag your tail but you can and should smile to express your gratitude for someone’s time. Webb cites a study that found that “merely being near someone in a good mood can be enough to lift people’s motivation (and therefore their performance), and being near someone grumpy can do the opposite.” Remarkably “this happened even when people were working on completely different tasks—and it happened within five minutes, without any conversation.” But you of course will be having a conversation – so celebrate all the good things you can find going on in each other’s lives, laugh, swap stories and jokes. Olivia Fox Cabane defines charm as how delightful it is to interact with someone. Have a good time and you can give someone else the same.
All of this is well and good but here we arrive at an insistence of Carnegie’s that clashes with my own personality: “You can’t win an argument.” Why not? Because at most you get “an academic, theatrical victory” but you lose “a person’s good will.” People don’t like to be wrong, or made to feel so. Warren Buffett considered this lesson one of the most profound of his life and he worked hard to change his natural tendency to be a contrarian so that he could win people over.
I haven’t quite followed that path as of yet, for better or worse. One interviewer set expectations in this way: “When you meet Grant Starrett, you’ll likely have two experiences: you’ll get in a debate with him, and you’ll like him.” Perhaps he was being generous. If he’s right, my guess is that humor plays a role. Or Bryan Caplan offers his own interpretation: “When Carnegie urges us to avoid argument, he primarily means a one-on-one attempt to reverse someone’s position even though at least one of you is upset. He’s not against argumentative essays or public debates; neither does he oppose sportsmanlike conversations on controversial topics.” Indeed, Caplan argues that in a public debate, you want that theatrical victory. But in more personal settings, Carnegie’s warning should be in the back of your mind if tensions rise.
Indeed, Carnegie’s very first piece of advice is to insist that you should not criticize, condemn, or complain. “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” Carnegie holds up the example of Abraham Lincoln, who as a young lawyer was quite a vocal critic until he was drawn into a duel that was barely averted and vowed to change his ways. Your best bet is to take a cue from Lord Chesterfield: “Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so.”
Figure 4. If you’d really like to restore civility to politics, take advice from Abe Lincoln and Zell Miller: a dueling society is a polite society.
This may be sensible if your utmost goal is to get people to like you – no one likes getting criticized – but as a practical matter, I don’t think that a good boss, parent, or friend should avoid it entirely. In Kim Scott’s popular matrix, Carnegie’s advice can seem awfully close to “ruinous empathy” while she encourages you to move to “radical candor.” Given that Carnegie puts such an emphasis on authenticity, a careful and honest approach may still be kosher. Cabane suggests that, before you criticize, you have to get into the right mindset of compassion: “When people feel that you have their best interests at heart, it can change the dynamic entirely.” In particular, “try thinking of a person whom you highly respect just before you deliver criticism” – like a favorite grandparent. “If you were to make this comment to them, or in front of them, how would you word your criticism?”
Carnegie realizes that sometimes some sort of correction is needed but he encourages you to be indirect. You might engage someone socratically to raise questions they had not thought about and tease out nuance. Just make sure you truly understand their position: Marshall Rosenberg writes that “Studies in labor-management negotiations demonstrate that the time required to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the previous speaker had said.” Webb suggests “the trick is to express your views without making the other person wrong, by finding ways in which they could be (partly) right and building your suggestions around that.” Tell people what you like and then what would make you like it even more.
For Carnegie, the important thing is to allow people to save face. Rosenberg warns that “When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.” The marriage expert John Gottman suggests that a lot of perennial disagreements are unresolvable, but if you are going to raise something, follow a few intentional steps: soften your introduction to set the right tone and ask for permission for a discussion, identify a specific situation (not a general trait), acknowledge your own responsibility, describe your own feelings about it, and then specifically identify what you want done going forward. And if you are the one in the wrong, Carnegie encourages you to “admit it quickly and emphatically.”
Of course, all of Carnegie’s advice has to do with what I mentioned in the very first sentence: If you’d like to be liked. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about that goal as one to pursue above and beyond any else. It certainly is wonderful to be blessed with friends – and I’d certainly like to influence ideas. But I also am interested in pursuing truth, which often best emerges through argument and bringing up uncomfortable ideas. I’ve been told that it’s impossible to know me without becoming more conservative and the trick may be to try to disagree without being disagreeable. And yet sometimes when I think of Dale Carnegie, I think of Will Rogers, a charming humorist who claimed he never met a man he didn’t like – but he had met Mussolini.
The critic of capitalism Sinclair Lewis was also a critic of Carnegie, claiming that the advice above taught people to “smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” But I think Lewis misses the boat on this one – if there’s one thing Carnegie is very clear on, it’s to give honest and sincere and genuine appreciation and interest. This contrasts entirely against more manipulative advice built on insincerity. Relatedly, one of the reasons older people tend to be happier is that, over the years, they edit their friend group and spend more and more time with people they actually like.
Bryan Caplan, another natural contrarian, has the most insightful take on Carnegie’s work. Caplan argues that likability is not the only key to success, but it is certainly one of the easiest ones. “If a toxic genius builds a multi-billion-dollar company, the reason is probably his genius – not his toxicity. And though you can’t choose to be a genius, you can choose to treat others well.” Caplan suggests that “While [the Carnegie method] isn’t a good way to accurately assess another person, it’s a good way to make friends and influence people.” The “big picture” is to “Stop demanding reciprocation from others. Unilaterally smile. Unilaterally show interest. Unilaterally encourage others to talk about themselves.” Ask yourself: “Before you treat another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?’ You’ll rarely have a good answer for yourself…. Before you speak to another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘Is there a more constructive way to say this?’” Ultimately, he teaches his “kids to be the kind of positive person we’re delighted to meet.” May you do the same!
I’ll close with an anecdote about two different kinds of charm. In the late 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were two giants of British politics and the great offices went back and forth between them. One woman managed to sit next to each at different occasions and reported: “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.”
Figure 5. Click here to acquire How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie claims that he “hired a trained researcher to spend one and a half years in various libraries reading everything [he] had missed, plowing through erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people.” And, amazingly, they “read over one hundred biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone.” Which is appropriate in that TR every night used to look at who he was meeting the next day and stay up late reading books about whatever they were interested in. I’ll leave you with perhaps Carnegie’s most famous line: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
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I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!