How to Win Friends and Influence People

This book was written by  Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936. It was one of the earliest bestselling self-help books. Not only the content of this title is magnificent, its title is too because it’s so lovely to the point. As the title suggests the book helps you learn how your social skills can be improved. It still remains popular today, which is not surprising given that its topic of elementary human behaviour has not changed much over the course of history. What makes this book so special compared to other books I’ve read is that the core principle of every chapter is summarised at the end in one sentence. For example, the core principle of the first chapter is summarised as ‘don’t criticise, condemn or complain’. This makes the message simple, compact and powerful.

While the message is simple, applying the theory in practice can be difficult. Sometimes we’re prone to exhibit behaviour that is counter productive to social relations and breaks the principles which are advised in this book. Let me give you a personal example.

As you might know from my earlier posts on my weblog I visited the Desktop Summit in Berlin in August of this year. At the conference there was a door in the back of the main conference room which offered the shortest route to all the other smaller conference rooms. At the start of the conference the organisers told the public that the door was not supposed to be used when presentations were given and that it would remain closed then. This way people travelling to other conference rooms couldn’t disturb presentations in the main room and they were forced to take a detour. I’m not sure, but maybe they also told that opening the door would trigger a fire alarm for the whole building. Whether they had or hadn’t told it, I didn’t know about it. A few days later during the conference a presentation in the main conference room just finished and I and some people were still in the room, chatting or working on their notebooks. Then someone appeared on the other end of the backdoor which was still closed. The guy asked us to open the door, some people said the door was not supposed to be used (even though the presentation was already finished and from a distance for which the message might not have been audible for the person behind the door) and ignored him while the guy was still asking for help.

I thought this attitude was not social and walked over to the door. The guy asked me if the door could be opened, which I was hesitant to do. I told him he needed to take a detour, but he told me he couldn’t find the way. With no one else helping and not wanting to ignore this guy, I decided to open the door. The door handle moved, the door wouldn’t open but the fire alarm did turn on. Ouch. I went to the organisers and explained and apologised for triggering the alarm. It would take some time to silence the alarm again. There was nothing I could help with to alleviate the problem, so I went back to the conference room. There one of the guys who had ignored the guy behind the door started talking to me. He asked my why I tried to open the door, I explained myself. This man was clearly incapable of empathy and started a verbal battle to condemn me. Even though I told him I had wanted to help the guy behind the door, he told me a had done him a bear service, disregarding my good intentions. Of course it was obvious he broke the principle not to criticise and condemn, he had made angry. The discussion ended when I told him I was done with talking to him. Had I observed the principle to quickly and emphatically admit my mistake, meaning I would have agreed with him about the bear service, the conversation probably would have taken a very different turn. Had I agreed with him, there no longer would have been a reason for him to condemn me, and we could have reconciled. Yet in this case I my feelings of contempt got the better of me, and I think many others would have responded in a similar way. This example illustrates why it can be difficult to strive for harmony instead of giving in to the urge of anger.

This shows that this book is not a title you read once, you re-read it and you work consciously to improve your social skills. Even before I read the book I knew that principles such as being a good listener and making compliments are important in social interactions. When these principles were explored I still learned something new due to the way the principles are elaborated on in the book. Some principles were also new for me, such as remembering the names of other people. That’s something I do very badly and which I try to improve quite consciously since I’ve read this book. The contemporary and historical examples given in the chapters to explain the principles can feel a bit dated because of the title’s age or American-centric because the author is an American. Sometimes the advantages of applying the principles can be portrayed in a manner which might come across as too enthusiastic, but if necessary the enthusiasm is parried by adequate nuance. This could be the most important book I’ve read for a long time and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. The only disadvantage is that this book is not in the public domain even if it was published in 1936.

I have a lot of respect for the author, Dale Carnegie. My edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People also included an afterword which told his life story. His life was very difficult during his youth, yet he managed to succeed later in life and lived the American dream. I noticed the troubles he had during his youth also served as inspiration for his book, he gives similar examples of other people who became very successful in later life after a difficult youth. His knowledge of social skills didn’t come natural to him, he became knowledgeable only after making mistakes and gaining much experience. Indeed, Thomas Edison’s phrase ‘genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’ completely applies to him.

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