Deconstructing the Art of ‘Winning Friends and Influencing People’ (Without Being a Jerk)

Circa 1955: A man and a woman read contrasting ‘How To’ books (one book is fictional). Photo by Frederic Hamilton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Smile. Be a good listener. Make others people feel important.

Simple, commonplace wisdom that seems fairly intuitive? Maybe. But first, these were lessons from Dale Carnegie’s seminal self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

More than 80 years later, Carnegie’s book remains one of the world’s bestsellers. The first edition of this iconic volume was published in 1936, and Carnegie today is regarded as the grandfather of the entire self-help genre. His book has made an undeniable lasting mark on public figures from Warren Buffet to (infamously) Charles Manson and selling more than 300,000 copies in 2016 alone.

Though sales prove that Carnegie’s teachings aren’t going anywhere, there are a few reasons why you might be tempted to cast it aside, starting with the title itself. “Winning and influencing people” sounds mildly manipulative and cringe-worthy, to say the least. Building relationships today looks very different than it did in the 1930s, making many of the book’s instructions seem antiquated.

While you can reliably extrapolate modern-day equivalents for most outdated examples, it is hard to deny that social relationships have changed considerably since Carnegie first published his principles. Not to mention we now understand more about human behavior, the brain, and the science of people than ever before.

So, does the book hold up in the age of texting, Facebook, and Slack? And what does research say about these fundamental strategies for dealing with people?

In my mind, Carnegie’s principles relating to empathy are even more important today, when incivility runs rampant in the news, politics, and on social media. On the other hand, some aspects of Carnegie’s book — specifically the tips that have compliance and persuasion at their core — could cross a line if used with bad intent. Influencing people for your own gain has the air of sleazy online marketing or the techniques of pickup artists and scammers.

Maybe Carnegie’s advice wasn’t intended this way when he wrote it in the 1930s, but it’s hard not to read it with that slant now. Like any bestselling work, some principles will be more everlasting than others.

Carnegie’s Tried-and-True Basics of Good Communication

At the root of How to Win Friends and Influence People is Carnegie’s belief in genuine kindness. Sincerity, attention, and appreciation, he believes, are the keys to forming relationships — not criticism, complaints, or empty flattery.

Some of Carnegie’s key adages instruct readers to:

  • Become interested in other people.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.
  • Show respect for others opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  • Begin with praise and honest appreciation.

These empathy-oriented tips are fundamental relationship-building skills that we all need today. Listening with genuine interest and respect is the foundation of any relationship. With loneliness on the rise, forming bonds at work and home is increasingly important. Research also backs some of Carnegie’s specific hunches, including that smiling makes you more likable and praising strengths is much more effective than harping on weaknesses.

While some these tips may seem overly simplistic, people either forget to employ them or fall into the trap of performing authentically. They get caught up in trying to follow a series of steps (open body language, good eye contact, say “mmm-hmm” to show you’re listening) rather than internalizing behavior and being fully present. As a result, they come off as awkward or disingenuous.

The biggest threat to presence in 2018? Distraction. So stop multitasking. Put your phone away. Use the underutilized (and uncomfortable) power of silence to let someone know you really hear them without jumping in to offer advice or push your agenda forward.

Simple steps, yes, but not always easy in this age of perpetual reactivity and the pressure to be “on” 24/7. Carnegie gives us a good reminder that basic empathetic communication goes a long way.

The Manipulative Side of ‘Influencing People’

How to Win Friends and Influence people was originally written as an accompanying guide to Carnegie’s public speaking courses, which focused on helping students boost sales and business after the Great Depression.

It’s clear that learning how to convince someone to buy your product or gain credibility with your boss to ask for a raise are positive side effects of learning how to sway others. Taking ownership and proactive steps to improve your standing in life is a cornerstone of healthy self-esteem, after all.

But as we’ve seen come to light recently, power is, well, complicated. Persuasion can err into manipulation if used for the wrong purposes — coercion, intimidation, or abusing another person’s trust for your own gain. Brainwashing, gaslighting, and other methods of control are the tools of choice for cults, narcissists, and predators.

In one particularly weird example from the book, Carnegie describes how he convinces his wife that they should travel to his desired vacation spot by using their child to plant the idea in her mind. This example feels especially problematic because, as the story is relayed, Carnegie seems to outsmart his wife, and he implicates their daughter in the trickery as well.

Not all influence is bad, however, so how can you use your newfound powers for good and not evil? Check your motives. Seeking to inspire, appreciate, or support is more effective than coercive tactics like punishment. Practicing “political intelligence” at work, for example, isn’t sleazy; it’s essential to making a good impression and creating alliances that help you do your job.

The Reason ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ Remains a Classic Today

How to Win Friends and Influence People remains a classic because it’s a treasure trove of solid yet sometimes overlooked advice for building authentic connection with friends, family, and co-workers. Relationship-building will never cease to be important. In fact, given the rise in loneliness due to technology, we could probably all use some back-to-basics advice about how to stay engaged with those around us. The mediums may have changed (for example, now you can exchange feedback via Slack or pursue a budding romance mainly over text), but our psychological needs stay the same.

Approaching relationships with thoughtfulness and sincerity is now doubly important when it comes to advancing your career. Studies show that more than 70 percent of people have found their jobs through networking. While networking doesn’t come easy to everyone, even the shyest and most reserved among us can gain confidence by putting Carnegie’s principles into action. Importantly, the book drives home the message that no one is naturally charismatic. Confidence, like any skill, can be learned. All it takes is practice.

Applying Carnegie’s Principles to Life in 2018

The beauty of the advice in How to Win Friends and Influence People is that, for the most part, it’s relevant to almost any social situation. You can channel it in these ways, and many others:

Take the example of climate change, for instance. Ordinarily, you might be tempted to tell the other person why they’re wrong and express disbelief that they could even hold that opinion. You might point outside and ask why it’s 80 degrees in October or pull up a National Geographic photo of a starving polar bear in an attempt to show the other person just how wrong they are. You might even have a physical reaction to the disagreement, like shaking.

But with Dale Carnegie in the back of your mind, the conversation would proceed much more civilly. You wouldn’t enter into the discussion with the goal of “winning” the argument; rather, you would aim for better understanding. You would listen respectfully and welcome hearing a new perspective. You would know going in that your mind likely won’t be changed, and neither will the other person’s. A conversation like this isn’t a chance to “beat” the other person; it’s a chance for sincere connection and an appreciation of another person’s perspective despite your steadfast differences of opinion.

In 2018, this might just be the hallmark achievement of success.

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Written by

Workplace success coach for sensitive high-achievers. Professor. Get 3 strategies execs @ Google & Facebook use to control stress

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