He writes, “How we conduct ourselves at an individual level, and at a community level, will set the tone for how we come out on the other side of this thing, regardless of who holds political office, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office or Congress.”
Whatever our politics, most of us would surely agree with Mann that a breakdown in our ability to communicate with others has occurred, a demolition reflected in bitter congressional debates and in some mainstream media outlets seemingly intent on pitting one group of Americans against another. This “cold civil war,” as some commentators now call it, is commonplace in the private sector as well, damaging friendships and splitting apart families.
Consequently, most of us would also agree with Mann that “in this time of political polarization, there’s no mindset more American than one of bridging trust.”
Turn Off the GadgetsFor several years now, readers, friends, and even a few family members have told me of bruised or broken relations with others, caused in many cases by political disagreements. Their accounts never fail to shock me, because unless Uncle Bob is a Stalinist or Aunt Mary a goose-stepping fascist, from where I stand only fanatics or fools cut off their parents or give the cold shoulder to a friend over political differences.
While discussing this topic with a conservative friend, she pointed out that social media could wreck a friendship or cause a family member to “unfriend” her cousin. For all the good these electronic platforms deliver—keeping us in touch with our acquaintances, letting us share pictures of our daughter’s baby girl—a wrong word or a controversial opinion posted online can whip up a maelstrom of wrath in its wake. As many of us know, “social media” is often a contradiction in terms.
No—if we want to breathe some life into Mann’s bridging philosophy, we should aim for personal, face-to-face encounters.
My friend agreed, but neither of us came up with any good solutions to her dilemma, which was how she might maintain her friendship with her liberal acquaintances while at the same time defending her beliefs. Speaking up, she feared, might fracture those relationships. We kicked around a few possible solutions, but nothing seemed workable.
Over the next few days, I kept returning to our conversation. Is this divide now so vast that keeping friends means keeping silent? So it seemed.
Honey and the BeehiveI don’t know why Carnegie’s 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” popped to mind. I’d never read the book; the title seemed sort of hokey and dated, and hinted at manipulation, as if by some mathematical calculation we might draw others to us. But the next day, there I was in our public library, finding not one but three copies of the book on the shelves and carrying the latest revision home with me.
Boy, was I ever wrong in my assumptions.
The updated version of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” offers excellent advice from the very first chapter, which is titled “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive.” Here, Carnegie furnishes bridge builders with a vital girder to that project with these words: “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.”
How well that fiat applies to our nation should be apparent to even the most casual observer. We are barraged by criticism, condemnation, and complaint, or the 3Cs as I now call them, and some of us lead the way in that bombardment.
First, They Have to Like YouIn “Part Two: Six Ways to Make People Like You,” Carnegie gives us some tips we so often forget. By listening to others, for instance, or becoming “genuinely interested in other people,” we can forge stronger bonds with them, especially “if you want to develop real friendships” or “you want to help others at the same time as you help yourself.”
A friend of mine, John, has a knack for striking up conversations with strangers, in large part because he is “genuinely interested” in what they are saying or doing. Over the years, I’ve seen him engage in prolonged conversations with the owner of an ice cream stand, a convenience store clerk, and several other strangers, drawing them out by asking questions and then truly paying attention to their answers.
One of Carnegie’s recommendations in this section consists of a single syllable: “Smile.”
He writes: “Your smile is a messenger of good will. Your smile brightens the lives of all who see it. To someone who has seen a dozen people frown, scowl, or turn their faces away, your smile is like the sun breaking through the clouds.”
After months of wearing masks in public, many of us are feeling disassociated from our fellow human beings. We miss those smiles we get when we bump into a friend in the grocery store or from that pleasant checkout clerk in the pharmacy.
Agreeing to Disagree“Part III: How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” is perhaps the most pertinent section of Carnegie’s book to our discussion here. Several of his ideas strike me as especially valuable for healing our wounded culture: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view,” “Let the other person do a great deal of the talking,” and “If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.”
“Come to think it over, I don’t entirely agree with it myself. Not everything I wrote yesterday appeals to me today. I am glad to learn what you think on the subject. The next time you are in the neighborhood you must visit us and we’ll get this subject threshed out for all time. So here is a handclasp over the miles, and I am,
Becoming Bridge BuildersIn “You Can’t Win an Argument,” Carnegie concludes with these admonitions:
“Welcome the disagreement.”
“Distrust your first instinct.”
“Control your temper.”
“Look for areas of agreement.”
“Promise to think over your opponent’s ideas and study them carefully.”
“Thank your opponents sincerely for their interest.”
“Postpone action to give both sides time to think through the problem.”
These propositions, supported by excellent examples, point us to the heart of civility, yet too often go missing these days. How many of us, for example, honestly practice these recommendations?
It may be impossible to discuss, much less argue, politics with true ideologues, those who aren’t interested in truth, who live locked up in a prison cell of their own making. But it is possible to build a friendship in spite of a chasm of political differences. To offer but one example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but these two Supreme Court justices were also the best of friends, no doubt in part because they practiced what Carnegie preached.
My 1981 edition of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” reports 30 million copies sold.
Maybe it’s time we purchased and read a few million more.