Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Influence of Dale Carnegie

I don’t know much about Dale Carnegie and I’m not persuaded of the value of dividing the world into introverts and extroverts.

Introverts are quiet and shy. Extroverts are outgoing. Yet, personality types—because that is what they are—should not be confused with character types.

An extrovert can be a fine human being who is gregarious and assertive. He might also be a loud-mouthed lout who is in it for himself and hogs all the attention.

An introvert can be a humble and efficient individual who does not seek personal gain. But he can also be sneaky, underhanded and deceptive.

My objections notwithstanding, Kyle Smith offers some excellent cultural analysis in a recent review of Susan Cain’s new book about Dale Carnegie.

Cain claims that Carnegie is the ringleader of a cult of extroversion that dates to 1913.

Smith summarizes Cain’s conclusion:

Cain traces the birth of the cult of extroversion back to 1913, when Dale Carnegie started publishing his success manuals. Carnegie (born Carnagey — he changed it, with the consummate skills typical of the extrovert, so as to create a spurious association with the tycoon Andrew Carnegie) took advantage of an America that was changing from a nation of farms and small towns, in which people tended to die not far from where they were born and everyone knew everyone. There was no need to sparkle or scintillate.

True enough, America was transformed from a nation of farms and small towns into a place where more and more people lived in cities, or worked in factories and corporations.

Obviously, cities still existed in the old days. But the Industrial Revolution transformed society and pushed more and more people to live and work in “cities filled with strangers.”

I haven’t read Cain’s book but clearly she is describing social anomie. As more people moved from small homogeneous communities to factories and large cities people ceased to know the rules, the players or the game. They began to feel lost and alone.

But, if we are interested in cultural transformations, we need to mention that 1913 was the eve of a cataclysmic historical event, World War I.

We stand at a considerable distance from that horrifying event so we often overlook how important and influential that War was. Most of us never learned that it was not a very heroic enterprise. In ended up inflicting  an extraordinary amount of mindless and useless destruction on millions of people. 

In a strange way World War I was an effort to cure social anomie. When the war broke out in 1914 the peoples of Europe cheered.

I suspect that the prospect of full mobilization, of placing large numbers of people in a strictly defined social organization, one where everyone knew the rules and the game and the players, where everyone knew what they had to do, was an effort to offer rootless and lost young men a way out of social anomie.

How well it worked in World War I is open to debate. We can say that the War ended up feeling like an extraordinary waste. You do not cure anomie by wasting a generation of young men for no good reason. Victory is always sweet but keep in mind that World War I was followed by a flu epidemic that killed millions more.

World War II also offered a cure for anomie, but it was far more effective as a social adhesive. It produced the greatest generation.

After the War the good habits, the order and discipline that young men learned in the military made them especially qualified to work in American corporations.

They worked well and diligently. They rebuilt the nation. Some were extroverts; some were introverts. All had learned the values of honor and discipline. Almost all practiced them.

A war that had a noble purpose built moral character better than the mindless slaughter of World War I.

After a time the values of the greatest generation were undermined by the Vietnam War… and the counterculture it engendered.

When large parts of the nation turned against the war and when it felt like we were losing, soldiers had more and more difficulty thinking that they were fighting for a noble cause.

In place of an ethic based on fitting in, fulfilling one’s responsibility and doing one’s duty much of the nation embraced an ethic that involved getting noticed.

That’s a long way of saying that I have some doubts about the importance of Andrew Carnegie. I suspect that John F. Kennedy was more influential.

Nevertheless, Smith’s cultural analysis, which reflects the work of historian Warren Susman, rings true.

In Smith’s words:

Susman noted that the qualities most often lauded in the advice manuals of the 19th century were “citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners and integrity.” In the post-Carnegie era, these concepts were replaced by words such as “magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful and energetic.”

Of course, every culture has introverts and extroverts. More importantly, it has people who are committed to their community and people who are committed only to themselves.

The latter, as Cain and Smith argue, damage society. They do not do business the old fashioned way. They do not earn their way. They are more interested in gaming the system to their personal advantage. Some do it quietly; some do it flagrantly. It remains for people of good character to clean up the mess.


David said...

Anomie & the First World War....certainly this was a part of it, yet the coming of WWI was also greated with great enthusiasm by many young men who had social position and connections and were not part of the rootless mass that Durkheim used the term "anomie" to describe. I think another major factor was the Romantic movement and its dislike of what they saw as the boring and stultifying bourgeois lifestyle.

Andrea said...

To clarify, Susan Cain's book is not a "book about Dale Carnegie."
Her book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," is mainly a book about how introverted people fare in our currently extroverted culture. Other chapters consider introverts and extroverts in marriage relationships, parent-child relationships, in school, and in the workplace.

n.n said...

Excellent. It is important to distinguish character by merit and not incidental exhibition. The two personality types are also circumstantial.

David said...

In a society which has become more mobile and anonymous, attributes such as being magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful and energetic" will become more important, since you people have less opportunity to view your accomplishments & character first-hand.

A similar dynamic is probably playing out today as careers become less a matter of long-term ladder-climbing within a single organization...when frequently changing jobs and/or working as a contractor/consultant, demonstrating "patient merit" becomes somewhat devalued compared with being able to make a good first impression.

Ditto, I think, in the dating world...if the primary way to meet potential partners is a noisy bar or club, then the range of attributes that can be demonstrated to prospects of the opposite sex is a lot more constrained than when you're talking about the girl next door.