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Published 07 March 2012 15:03, Updated 08 March 2012 09:19
As China started opening up to the West in the 1980s, among the first self-help books published there was the one that started the entire genre: Dale Carnegie’s original How To Win Friends And Influence People.
Despite hitting the shelves in 1936, Carnegie’s little instruction book has had a big impact, with countless reprints in “almost every known written language”, according to its publisher Simon & Schuster.
The book is still on the recommended reading list at business schools around the globe, helping explain why the hardcover edition was the 198th best seller of all the tomes listed on amazon.com last week.
Even those who haven’t absorbed all 320 pages of Carnegie’s homilies may know at least some of his famous “techniques for handling people”: don’t criticise, condemn or complain; give honest and sincere appreciation; arouse in the other person an eager want; never show others that you are not interested in what they have to say.
Sounds all very noble and life-affirming, doesn’t it?
Yet when it was time for Carnegie’s book to get the Chinese treatment, the literal translation of its Chinese title was The Weakness Of Human Nature.
Who knows if it was just an interpreter having a little fun but that title neatly captured the real secret of the Carnegie approach: most people are vain and self-centred, so flattery gets you everywhere.
Not that the author of this digital age update, the mysterious “writer based in Georgia” Brett Cole, puts it like that.
“[Carnegie] extolled action that sprang from genuine interest in others. He taught principles that flowed from an underlying delight in helping others succeed. Were the book re-categorised, [it] would be more appropriately deemed the bestselling soul-help book in the world,” he says.
The problem is, following much of the advice extolled by Carnegie could, in 2012, prove utterly soul-destroying. Take the chapter on listening.
“More so than when this book was first published in 1936, there is a crying need for people who make the time to listen, for people who will resist the skitterish impatience so prevalent in our age and make people more important than progress,” Cole writes.
“When you listen well you not only make an instant impression, you also build a solid bridge for lasting connection. Who can resist being around a person who suspends his thoughts in order to value yours?”
He’s probably right that good listeners are rarer in an age of Twitter-shortened attention spans. He’s wrong about them exerting any more influence.
For Cole fails to mention that other, more insidious impact of social media: a growing belief in society that a life unexhibited is barely worth living at all.
When the blabbermouth at the party pauses in his rant, is he really any more likely to be influenced by what his long-suffering listener says next?
These days, he’s probably just catching his breath, checking his iPhone and rehearsing Part Two.
That’s not to suggest there isn’t much that’s still relevant in Carnegie’s wisdom. This update is at its best when providing modern examples of Carnegie’s principle that “there is no such thing as a neutral exchange, you leave someone either a little better or a little worse”.
It also doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the best way to correct another’s failings: first admit to them your own.
The chapters on the value of smiling and remembering people’s names are probably the most practically helpful, possibly because the advice has not had to change a jot from the original.
For there are many missteps in this update, which unlike the plaintalking original, often lapses into blowhard corporate babble.
This is no more evident than when Cole defines influential people as those who “pursue a higher calling, something that transcends whatever political, bureaucratic or success-oriented motivations stifle others”.
Who specifically is he referring to? None other than Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most divisive US president in history. You can never influence ’em all.