This book could easily be re-titled "How to Manipulate People and Act Phony," or perhaps, "The True Selfishness of the Human Ego and How to Harness to it for Your Own Personal Gain." I first found this book when I was 19 and thought, "Wow, I'll read this book and finally everyone will recognize me as the good-hearted person I am." The "Gandhian" in me still thought so naïve an objective was possible.
This book was written in 1930s vernacular for a more wide-eyed and trusting America, complete with plenty Norman Rockwellesque "good golly gee" anecdotes where everything works out happily in the end. At times such a writing style can be endearing, in some places, particularly in the chapter where the author uses the resolution of a labor strike as illustration of the effectiveness of his principles, it can verge on offensive. It is somewhat amazing that this book has not been re-written completely because, despite the resent "revision," the style and format remains quite dated and stale. If not for the CD recordings I would have never made it through, as the inflection and dramatization of the narrator brings it a bit more to life. I also bought and read an old participant handbook from the Carnegie seminar as well as the biography, "Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions." This helped to put this book in the appropriate historical and social context.
Though Mr. Carnegie quotes from many people in this book, including the Buddha, and the revised edition even includes a few reflections on the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., there really is nothing "transcendent" to be found, and such quotations are often taken garishly out of context. This is not a book about how to deepen relationships or how to broaden our worldview, nor does it teach us how to become genuinely compassionate and remove our prejudices, nor does it aim us in the direction of any kind of true self-realization. Least of all is this a book about putting an end to the futility of looking for happiness outside oneself. This book is about sales. In fact, this book was primarily developed as a text for Mr. Carnegie's class on salesmanship. At the point in American history in which this book was written, there was great need for training and educating in business management. Dale Carnegie stepped into that role and has remained the archetype of corporate (i.e., insincere) niceness ever since. All those clerks, phone solicitors, even used car salesmen, you can thank Mr. Carnegie for having taught them everything they know about hooking the customer by pretending to care. I would not, therefore, suggest anyone use any of these techniques on those they truly love because, like I said, this is a book about manipulation.
The unfortunate thing about this book is that it works. This manipulation is so effective and so brilliantly obvious that it is amazing people still "fall" for it after more than 50 years in print. Perhaps the most manipulative bits of advice, also being the most painfully truthful, are: to every person the most beautiful word in any language is their own name; the greatest desire of all people is to feel important; never forget that everyone you meet considers themselves your superior in some way; a person's headache means more to them than the death of a million people in an African famine; when dealing with people we are not dealing with animals of reason, but beings swayed by emotion, bigotry, prejudice, and vanity. The Gandhian in me sees that all of the above-described, obviously selfish, traits are actually the cause of great loneliness and sorrow in this world, and is therefore frustrated that rather than teaching us to overcome these traits Mr. Carnegie simply teaches us how to harness them and use them for our own personal gain. Are we to believe the key to fulfillment is to manipulate others' feelings of lack of fulfillment? The result is simply a reinforcement of selfishness in others and oneself, and perhaps the resulting loneliness, frustration, and isolation. Mr. Carnegie claims that this is not the case and that this book is teaching compassion and seeing things from the other person's perspective, but even I am not that naïve anymore.
And that is my main problem with this book: the terribly shallow definition it implies for the word "friend." Is a friend someone you manipulate for the sake for making the sale? Or is a friend someone you can be honest with, even if that honesty means revealing how selfish us human beings can be? I am grateful to Dale Carnegie for helping me realize just how selfish and egotistical people often are (myself included), but I am frustrated with him for implying that manipulating that selfishness is what constitutes a friendship.
I refuse to fool myself as to the true nature of this book. I use these techniques consciously when I feel I am at the mercy of people who do not care about me and would rather have me out of their face as soon as possible. But this is not friendship; this is desperation. If I were to fool myself and internalize these techniques and convince myself that this was friendship, I wouldn't know how to have a real honest and loving relationship with anyone - I would live the life of the plastic smile you see on employees in department stores and fast food chains.
I use these techniques to influence people when I have to, but I wouldn't want to be friends with anyone who would fall for it.