A Bit More Than a Book Review of
How to Win Friends and Influence People
by Dale Carnegie
According to Susan Cain’s book Quiet, Dale Carnegie could well be responsible for the Cult of Personality—if not its origin, then its popularity. In its narrow sense, the cult of personality is “a situation in which a public figure . . . is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved.” However, I define it as the widespread substitution of character for personality. This social ideology has caused people to judge others by their personas instead of their principles. An individual’s reputation is based on outward traits like energy, likability, and popularity rather than on inward qualities such as honesty, humility, and integrity. People learn that others will like them if they abide by the “correct” social cues and expectations, regardless of whether or not they’re actually decent people. While research has yet to link Personality Culture with the rise of emotional and mental health issues like impostor syndrome and performance or social anxiety, it’s obvious that the pressure to conform to a subjective set of social standards could lead to self-doubt and uncertainty—i.e., you feel fake because you are, because your self-image changes with your environment (not necessarily because you’re a perfectionist or an overachiever, etc.)—a social charade that How to Win Friends and Influence People has helped to perpetuate.
In a nutshell (should I say “nutcase”?), Carnegie’s well-meaning classic on interpersonal communication and the power of positivity relies on the premise that the craving to be important “is a gnawing and unfaltering human hunger, and the rare individual who honestly satisfies that heart hunger will hold people in the palm of his or her hand” (I.ii.18).¹ Carnegie also proposes that “the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage” because “he has little competition” (I.iii.42).
The rare individual will hold people in the palm of their hand.
The rare individual has little competition.
The rare individual.
One factor makes this unintentional elitism either bearable or distressing, depending on your point of view: Carnegie never pretends that the common “herd” is anything but common (III.iii). He knows how to call a spade a spade. He says:
How you get your feeling of importance . . . determines your character. That is the most significant thing about you. . . . John D. Rockefeller got his feeling of importance by giving money to erect a modern hospital in Peking, China, . . . [John] Dillinger, . . . got his feeling of importance by being a bandit, a bank robber and killer. (I.ii.19).
Carnegie also uses gangsters to show how a lack of self-awareness can lead the common herd to blame their most horrific faults on everyone but themselves. At the end of his cop-killing career, “Two Gun” Crowley complained, “This is what I get for defending myself” (I.i.3–4). Chicago’s Public Enemy No. 1 considered himself a public benefactor. “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time,” Al Capone complained, “and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man” (I.i.4). Poor misunderstood sod.
Carnegie’s point is that if the worst of us can convince ourselves that black is white, imagine how much easier it is for the common herd to rationalize the “grey” areas. Quoting Alfred Adler (1870–1937), Carnegie states, “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injuries to others. It is from such people that all human failures spring” (II.i.53). Unfortunately, as Carnegie frankly informs us, “People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves—morning, noon and after dinner” (II.i.52).
So, what should Rare Individuals do—kindly but firmly enlighten the common herd to their selfishness? Nope. “Always make the other person feel important,” Carnegie counsels, and never blatantly tell them they’re wrong (II.vi.95). If you do, “you may then hurl at them all the logic of a Plato or an Immanuel Kant, but you will not alter their opinions, for you have hurt their feelings” (III.ii.116). In other words, the common herd lets their emotions determine their behavior instead of letting the truth determine their emotions. This makes emotion a tyrant rather than a servant. Thus, the only people who can view criticism in its proper light are paragons of virtue like the young Benjamin Franklin, who Carnegie commends for humbly accepting a harsh rebuke and modifying his own feisty behavior (III.ii.121–122). Unlike him, the common herd is a product of their environment rather than their choices (III.ix.167). They’re just doing what bovines do. They need you to be gracious, not demanding. Make allowances for their mental and emotional inferiority. Noblesse oblige; this is the beau geste that the truly noble have always extended to the ignoble.² Remember that you could just as easily be in the same sorry state if you hadn’t had the sense to profit by Carnegie’s advice.
“God Himself, . . . does not propose to judge man until the end of his days.”
~Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
“A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.”
~Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)
“Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”
~Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
If everyone were as wise as you are, two things would occur: (1) the world would be full of people who were genuinely interested in others instead of ones who are only interested in themselves, and (2) Carnegie’s book would be completely useless. Fortunately, self-absorbed people rarely see the need for self-improvement. Thus, they’re unlikely to read Carnegie’s book and therefore easily influenced by the Rare Individuals who have.
This isn’t so bad for the common herd, but it isn’t very good for you. While they’re being made to feel like the best thing since buttered muffins, your own needs are going unmet; and nine times out of ten, whenever interpersonal effort is uneven, you have the makings of an unbalanced relationship. Shakespeare said, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” (Sonnet 116, ll. 1–2, emphasis mine). Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). But even the most sacrificial love requires personal responsibility. Jesus continued, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (v. 14, emphasis mine). He extends His love to all, but only those who are humble enough to submit to His authority are capable of receiving it. Jesus came to make us good, not to make us feel good. He never meant for His love or grace to numb the conviction we’re supposed to feel when we do something wrong. So why should we continually lay down our lives for those who abuse His greatest commandments?
‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22:37–40, Mark 12:31, Rom. 13:9; see also Ex. 20:1–17).
Carnegie’s “law” says, “Always make the other person feel important” (II.vi.95). God’s Law states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:17–18, emphasis mine). In other words, sin begets sin: the sin of silence begets the sin of hate until the cycle is broken by a vocality of love. This is radically different from the misinterpretation of Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrisy—”judge not, that you be not judged”—as a command to tolerate evil in the name love (Matt. 7:1).
Throughout How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie returns to the premise that humanity’s deepest desire is to be important and appreciated. “It is this urge,” he posits, “that differentiates us from the animals” (II.iv.95). I disagree. I think that the craving to be important and appreciated is the deepest desire of fallen humanity, and that this is the urge that differentiates us from the angels. The Apostle Paul said:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:3–7).
Wanting to be important and appreciated may be human, but it’s clearly not divine. So, assuming the reality of objective truth, the real question is whether we should accept people as they are without expecting them to be better than that.
In Part III, Chapter 1, Carnegie lists some tips for successfully addressing interpersonal conflict, while Part IV lays out how to tactfully confront someone without making them hate you. These techniques may have worked in 1936, when How to Win Friends and Influence People was first published, but subtlety bounces off modern Americans like a rubber ball. Nowadays, if you want to get your point across, you have to beat people over the head with it. Social niceties like self-deprecation and admitting your faults don’t appeal to others’ nobler natures or encourage them to reciprocate. They simple give them a scapegoat for their insecurities and bad manners—someone to seem worse than they are by comparison. Most people are only too happy to let you take the blame for their shortcomings, whether you’re nice to them or not. Carnegie makes a similar point in his first chapter. As for smiling in today’s digital culture, you’ll be lucky if you can make eye contact long enough for your friendliness to creep them out.
There are five kinds of people who should read Carnegie’s classic: (1) those who don’t think that everyone has a moral and social responsibility to improve themselves; (2) those who don’t think that everyone has a moral and social responsibility to remind others of this fact; (3) those who have no desire to live among people who are as self-aware and forthright as they are; (4) those who are willing to stoop to Lilliputian social maneuvers to outperform the small, weak-minded competition; and (5) those who believe that true, reciprocal friendship can exist between mental and emotional unequals.³
If you’re one of those unhappy souls who views others as equals who are equally capable of behaving themselves—someone who wishes that the world were more transparent, not less so—you probably won’t benefit much from Carnegie’s advice. This is because the disparity between your expectations and those of others will invariably prevent you from finding much to honestly commend. You have two choices: pay people the courtesy of holding them to an equally high standard or fake the approbation you don’t feel. According to Carnegie, people will resent the one and see through the other; in neither case will you be likable (I.ii.26–27, III.ii.116). So, unless you’re prepared to change your entire personality to accommodate other people’s lack of character, you’re out of luck. But resist the temptation to reject Carnegie’s philosophy on that account. He writes in a warm, energetic style and swears by his own argument. Surely, these facts are proof against criticism.
¹ How to Win Friends and Influence People has been inventively cited like a play: uppercase Roman numerals for the parts, lowercase Roman numerals for the chapters, and Arabic numerals for the pages. The page numbers coincide with the 1981 edition published by Simon & Schuster in New York. However, if you download it as an e-book or a PDF, you can look up the references in the search bar.
² Literally, “nobility obligates” and “beautiful gesture,” respectively
³ In Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels, Lilliput is an island inhabited by physically, mentally, and emotionally small people whose politicians engage in sociopolitical acrobatics.