Book review: How to Win Friends and Influence People in a Digital Age

Dale Carnegie's 1936 self-help classic has been rehashed for our times. Julia Hobsbawm finds the medium off-message.

by Julia Hobsbawm
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2015

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Dale Carnegie, founding father of the self-help genre, is still enjoying it 50 years after his death, and after some 50 million people have bought How to Win Friends and Influence People. I am particularly fond of the 2005 book by New York's Carnegie Deli, entitled How to Feed Friends and Influence People, with chapters such as 'Statue of Chopped Liver-Ty' and 'Have a Nice Sandwich'. And Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was a highly successful reverse imitation and was even made into a movie.

But now we have a curious thing. An imitation of the original by the next best thing to the author: his 'Associates'. I read the proofs in the week that Amy Winehouse's posthumous 'album' of songs was released, and this book has the feel of both a sincere tribute and a clear cashing-in product: maintaining the brand with something 'new' after the star has passed away.

Here, it's 75 years after. The original blockbuster was published in 1936, a decade after Carnegie's first book, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business, joined works by other leading US business thinkers: Walter Lipmann's Public Opinion (1922) defined the relationship between a public and its information systems; and Edward Bernays' Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) looked at public relations techniques.

The thinking at the time centred on the questions of individuality, consumerism and the psychological and behavioural triggers that might increase ways in which people earned and spent money, based on what they felt.

Dale Carnegie introduced a popular, pithy way of achieving success by getting personal. 'There is only one way in high heaven to get people to get anybody to do anything,' he said. 'And that is by making the other person want to do it.' His heirs at Dale Carnegie & Associates calculate that this message will still sell, with a little updating for the digital age.

His book has been reprised and paraphrased using lots and lots of reference to Facebook, email and blogs, and padded out with many references to someone else's report from Harvard Business School, Duke University, or references to Abraham Lincoln, about whom Carnegie once wrote a biography.

The essence of the book - a distillation of ideas about using empathy to connect with people and so having successful relationships in business with them - is better summed up in the worksheet of a single downloadable essay on the website by Kevin Sensenig, global vice president of learning and organisational development at Dale Carnegie & Associates.

The rest is padding. Chapters such as 'Take Interest in Other's Interests', 'Smile' and 'Begin in a Friendly Way' rehash the central Carnegie observations about how being nice gets infinitely better results than being nasty: 'From the political podium to the digital medium to the boardroom table, the one who speaks in a spirit of respectful, unhyperbolic affirmation will always win more friends and influence more people to positive progress than the one who communicates in criticism, condemnation, and condescension'.

But who is this book for and - this being a digital age - need there be a book at all? What about a series of online videos or podcasts or downloadable tips? These may have worked better.

Yet inside this cynical piece of publishing are tucked away interesting observations. Take the point that trust, empathy and connection are sealed better in person than via social media. In Carnegie's day, 'Face-to-Face was the expectation. Today it is the exception ...

What is your ratio of face-to-face versus digital interactions?'

So this ought either to be a rallying cry for how to do more interpersonal befriending and influencing, or have the kind of intellectual rigour that Robert Cialdini demonstrates in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. First published in the 1980s, this book has recently been reissued with a total sense of relevance.

Despite its best intentions, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age achieves a reverse imitation of its own: it all feels terribly analogue.

How to Win Friends and Influence People in a Digital Age

Brent Cole/Dale Carnegie & Associates

Dale Carnegie & Associates


- Julia Hobsbawm runs the face- to-face networking business Editorial Intelligence.

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