Still winning

Australian Financial Review

The title makes it sound like a flatterer's handbook.

How To Win Friends And Influence People was first published in the ’30s, the work of a one-time travelling salesman named Dale Carnegie.

It must have spoken to a need, and it’s still speaking to a need. It’s a top-selling self-help title, with 30 million sales and counting. It has spawned copycats and spoofs, like the amusingly named memoir-turned-film, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People.

The book did not invent self-help or cheat sheets for living. The Stoics offered advice on achieving eudaimonia, a state usually translated as human flourishing. After them, Cicero wrote on friendship specifically. His tract On Friendship offered the notion that life is nothing without friends.

His top tips included: don’t be friends with tyrants, don’t look for buddies in politics, and whatever else you do, steer clear of flattery.

So is How To Win Friends a handbook for flattery? The author says no. Carnegie is adamant he’s against what he calls cheap flattery. And perhaps it’s not flattery if you take on his main messages: be interested in other people, grant them importance, and practice the art of giving sincere appreciation.

Carnegie grew up on a hog farm in Missouri (“on the edge of Jesse James country,” he writes). He was no relation to Andrew Carnegie, the filthy rich steel tycoon, though he changed his name from Carnegey to trade on the association, and later booked Carnegie Hall as a speaking venue.

He tried selling everything from soap to correspondence courses, then found his niche teaching public speaking to adults – initially, at the YMCA on 125th Street in New York. Unable to find a suitable text, he set about writing his own. It came out in 1936, in the eighth year of the Great Depression. Auto workers were out on strike in Flint, Michigan, and the severe dust storms that came to be known as the Dust Bowl were devastating the prairieland.

It’s a little surprising, then, to find the book a jaunty read. That’s down to the “brash, breezy Carnegie style”, in the fitting words of the author’s wife, Dorothy Carnegie. It can be read in a single sitting (or two or three if life intervenes).

Examples are drawn from the lives of great men of antiquity through to presidents and American everymen. There are stories of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee using diplomacy even in the midst of the Civil War. We get to read some cracking insults in unsent letters from Mark Twain (his wife lifted them from the post before they went off). And there are salesmen like Carnegie, hail-fellow-well-met types.

Is it “the only book you need to lead you to success”? That’s the all-caps promise on the new edition’s cover. Well, no. That would be absurd. But it has good tips for framing a sales pitch – or indeed any pitch. It has practical things to say about bringing people on board, even when (and this is tricky) you’re contradicting them or wielding power in some way.

It’s good advice for all, and it won’t be lost on women. They know – and research shows – that they are judged more harshly when they fail to present as “nice”

Some of the examples aren’t really recipes for success: they show already powerful people being courteous to others. That’s more likely to be a correlative than a cause of their ascent to power. It isn’t clear that good people skills will vault you to the top. In some sectors, sociopathy seems the surer route.

But that’s to mistake, I think, what Carnegie is on about. His book is really about people and getting along with them. He quotes a magazine editor as saying that in reading a short story he could always tell whether the author liked people. “If the author doesn’t like people,” he said, “people won’t like his or her stories.”

You would think a book this old would be hopelessly out of date. The economy has changed. We’re tech-happy and time-poor. You can’t use these tips in dealings without a personal dimension, or where you’re facing the template rules of an Apple or Amazon. It’s still largely true, however, that things happen through people, and human drivers haven’t changed in the last eight decades.

Towards the end, Carnegie turns to how to influence difficult people. Try giving them a good reputation to live up to, he says. Tell the sullen maid she has unlimited potential. Tell the misbehaving school kid he is a natural leader.

Diplomats know this trick. Henry Kissinger once said the best negotiator he encountered was the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Before talks started, Sadat would credit his opponent with a virtue that suited his agenda, like a supposedly well-known tradition of fairness. Kissinger said, “Sadat gave his opponents a reputation to live up to” – something they then did surprisingly often.

Is that flattery? Sure – but it might be all you have to work with.

The Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich tells a story that makes this point about influence in a dramatic way. It comes from Gafkhar Dzhurayeva, the director of a Moscow non-profit that assists Tajik workers, a group often on the receiving end of abuse. The organisation had scant resources. It operated out of few small rooms.

One day, Dzhurayeva took a call from a young woman. She was calling from a car after having been picked up by a group of drunk policemen. They were driving her into the forest but she was able to give the licence plate.

Dzhurayeva called the police station. “Hello, my dear man, I’ve just been notified of a strange situation unfolding. Your boys are taking our girl somewhere she shouldn’t be going, and they’re drunk. We know their licence plate number.”

The man at the other end swore at her, yet little by little the exchange turned into a conversation. Dzhurayeva relied on phrases like “my dear”, “my good man”, and “I have in faith in you”. Words were all she had, but in this case they did the trick. Fifteen minutes later, the police turned the car around and brought the young woman back.

It’s an old strategy that still works. Not always, of course, but there might be times when such techniques are all you’ve got in your arsenal, and the ability to persuade can make all the difference.