Andrew Ladd tackles an updated self-help classic—now sans sexism and racism—to find out whether its advice still holds water in 2011.
Seventy-five years ago, the United States was slogging through an economic downturn worse than any in recent memory. Unemployment and foreclosure rates were stubbornly high. The dollar was losing value. The sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was pushing controversial economic reforms through Congress. Sounds familiar, right?
But there is a striking difference between our situation now and the situation then: 75 years ago the country was far more unified politically. When Roosevelt won his second term in 1936, it was with the largest electoral landslide in U.S. history. (He failed to carry only Maine and Vermont.)
It might sound strange to look back on the Great Depression as “better times,” but at least people in the 1930s weren’t quite as divisively at each other’s throats; at least politicians could still inspire us with their ability to get things done. At least politicians could still get things done.
Seventy-five years ago is also, coincidentally, when Dale Carnegie’s seminal self-help book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, was first published. The original print run was a measly 3,000, but within four months a further 162,000 had been issued, and today the book has sold over 15 million copies. (That puts it about on par with Grapes of Wrath.)
Clearly, Carnegie was on to something about how to get along with people. So if our problem today, unlike 75 years ago, is that we can’t stop bickering long enough to fix the country’s pressing issues, it’s time, I think, to revisit his advice.
A new revision of How to Win Friends, its production overseen by Carnegie’s late wife, was released in 1981. Nowadays that edition (Simon & Schuster, $26 hardcover, $15 paperback) is the only one you can easily find, and though the two versions are relatively similar, that’s not entirely a good thing.
The modern editors’ most obvious work was to remove the references from Carnegie’s original that would read as too egregiously sexist or racist to today’s readers—which is fair enough. Gone are references to Eskimos and “cow-kissing” Hindus, and the wisdom, for example, that “a conservative Japanese” will get “infuriated at the sight of a white man dancing with a Japanese lady.”
Yet there doesn’t seem to be much pattern to what else has been changed to make the text feel less dated, with references to Al Capone, President Taft, and the Kaiser all escaping deletion.
Meanwhile, the updates and additions are often bizarre. In the interest of gender quality, for instance, women are haphazardly substituted for men in Carnegie’s anecdotes, giving us lines like “I once knew a woman who had been office manager for a large insurance concern for 15 years.” In 1936? Sure you did, Dale! (Considering the brouhaha earlier this year about the n-word being removed from a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a similar outrage about pretending women had that kind of opportunity in the 1930s.)
The kooky anachronisms pop up in other places, too, with “Carnegie” telling us stories about World War II, B.F. Skinner, Stevie Wonder, and plenty of other things he certainly couldn’t have known about in the 1930s. The effect of it all is that the revised edition feels like part self-help tract, part stoned prophecy—which can make it a little difficult to take seriously.
Beyond those superficial alterations, the much bigger difference in the modern edition is that it’s lacking the original’s last two sections. The first of these is “Letters That Produced Miraculous Results,” a lopsided case study of the book’s principles in action. From an editorial standpoint I can understand why it was cut: even Carnegie admits that it “smacks of patent-medicine advertising.”
I guess I can also understand why the modern editors cut the last section, “Seven Rules for Making Your Home Life Happier.” For one thing, it’s repetitive, mostly restating the same rules from earlier sections in a slightly different context. (Indeed, in the revised edition, some of the material from these chapters is folded into earlier ones.)
For another thing, it’s hilariously sexist. A good deal of it is a laundry list of famous historical figures—Napoleon III, Tolstoy, Lincoln—who had wives that Carnegie clearly viewed as contemptible. A brief sample:
“Mrs. Lincoln’s jealousy was so foolish, so fierce, so incredible, that merely to read about some of the pathetic and disgraceful scenes she created in public—merely reading about them 75 years later makes one gasp with astonishment. … Perhaps the most charitable thing one can say about her is that her disposition was probably always affected by incipient insanity.”
On the flip side of that overt misogyny, there’s also a more subtle one, masquerading as a quaint respect for the delicate creatures Carnegie takes women to be. “All men forget,” he gently reminds us, “how profoundly women are interested in clothes.” They also “attach a lot of importance to birthdays and anniversaries—just why, will forever remain one of those feminine mysteries.” Yes, he says: women “are different, and we American men ought to recognize it.”
But while it’s easy to mock Carnegie’s dated views on gender, he actually has a lot of valuable advice in the home-life section that it seems a shame to do without. Don’t nag, don’t try to change your partner, give compliments for the little things—even “read a good book on the sexual side of marriage.” These are all habits, to borrow a phrase from one of Carnegie’s contemporary competitors, of highly successful relationships. They don’t always come naturally, either, so why not leave them in?
The obvious reason is that people probably aren’t buying How to Win Friends for the relationship advice. But that’s the best reason, if you ask me, to keep including it. Carnegie seemed to understand that there’s more to happiness than success in your career—that your home life is equally important, if not more so. Making this book all about influencing your business partners takes the emphasis off that sense of balance, and in these times of BlackBerrys and iPhones and 24-hour connectedness, that balance seems like the thing we need to be reminded of the most.
Those several, lengthy caveats aside, How to Win Friends is still a surprisingly insightful, worthwhile, and relevant piece of reading. I found myself nodding along, fascinated, for most of the book, and have even tried out some of its advice since, to great effect.
Of course, I can’t tell you in detail what any of that advice is, or the lawyers will be all over me. But it basically boils down to: “Don’t be a jerk.” If you’re nice to people, if you treat them the way you’d like to be treated, if you listen and try to find common ground instead of forcing your angry, stubborn arguments down their throats—probably you’ll get more or less what you want.
If everyone in the country tried harder to follow that example, I think, it would be a happier place. At the very least, they’d be getting a lot more done in Washington.