Self-Help Original Gets a Makeover

Its title is now a stock-standard phrase of the English language. It’s sold some 30 million copies since it was first published some 75 years ago. It single-handedly invented a new kind of book, one that now sells in the millions annually. It even inspired not one but two satirical memoirs (the first published in 1937, and the second in 2001, now an eponymous film). It’s Dale Carnegie’s self-help Bible, How to Win Friends and Influence People (satirised in the aforementioned memoirs as How to Lose Friends and Alienate People).

Dale Carnegie was the quintessential American success story of the early 20th century. As a farmer’s son, he’d dreamed of being an instructor in the Chautauqua adult education movement. After failing as an actor, the soap salesman-cum-autodidact (then known as Carnagay) found his calling as a public speaking instructor, publishing books on public speaking for business. His business thrived, he changed his name (Carnegie was the name of a well-known steel baron) and became successful by teaching the aspiring American middle classes how to be successful. At the time How to Win Friends was published, in the thick of the Great Depression, Carnegie was earning the equivalent of $10,000 a week.

Despite the faintly creepy title, Dale Carnegie’s manual took a benign view of human relationships that eventually came to be emblematic of the sunny side of mid-century American capitalism. The book espoused a win-win model of interaction grounded in a Christian, ‘do-unto-others’ moral framework, stressing that, on the whole, acting with politeness, empathy, honesty and integrity - as well as basic social niceties like listening to people and remembering their names - would encourage others to behave similarly in return.

Now, the original self-help bestseller has been reworked for the 21st century - but the results may not be either winning or particularly influential. Dale Carnegie Training, the descendant of the company founded by Carnegie 99 years ago, has re-released the book for the socially-networked era. How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age offers tips on email etiquette and how to avoid the common Twitter mistakes that can damage careers irrevocably. Bloggers are encouraged to interact with their audience and due attention ought be paid to Facebook friend updates.

So how has the book been received? Dwight Garner in the New York Times laments the loss of the original’s homespun qualities: “This new adaptation seems to have been composed using refrigerator magnets stamped with corporate lingo.” Take, for example, this advice: “Today’s biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment.” This sentence, Garner opines, is “so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead”.

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