I have a long and antagonistic relationship with social skill how-to books, starting with my award winning 8th essay about How to Win Friends and Influence People. The essay was about how it didn’t teach you how to make friends, it taught you how to suck up to people, and my award was that I got to stop reading the book.* As an adult I realized that HtWFaIP couldn’t possibly have stayed that popular for that long for no reason and gave it another shot. The most charitable thing I could say was that it was for incompetent or unconfident extroverts. I was a profound introvert, and Carnegie genuinely did not seem to get the idea that talking to people could be draining.
This would become a theme with me. I am eternally grateful to the friend who loaned me Crucial Conversations, because it immediately improved my life by 15%, and has never stopped paying dividends. How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk and John Gottman’s books on marriage** were not quite as revolutionary, but I enjoyed reading them and knew they would have been useful had Crucial Conversations not gotten there first. But those were books focused on doing emotional work in deep relationships. Books about professional networking or making friends tended to leave me just as angry as HtWFaIP, for similar reasons. They assumed that everyone wanted the things extroverts wanted, and that they could get them by acting like extroverts. I didn’t need someone to encourage me to speak up at corporate dinners, I needed either a list of tricks to make them less energetically costly for me or a less painful way to get the benefits of attending said dinners.*** Or they imply there’s something wrong/selfish/possibly evil about me not wanting to engage with every person I meet.
Along with the rest of the internet, I went through an introverts rights phase, reading Quiet and Introvert Power. Those made me feel better about myself, and helped me socially by making me feel more comfortable advocating for my needs. But they were never intended to be how-to books.
Now I am reading It’s Not Just Who You Know. It’s pitched as “How to Win Friends and Influence People, but for emotionally meaningful relationships.”, which so far has been ragingly inaccurate, but I’m only 30% in, and what it’s been so far has been even better.
So far INJWYK has been a memoir, starting in high school, of how Tommy Spaulding’s social skills and resulting social connections have helped him. For a while I struggled with jealousy at what Spaulding got through socializing and I thought be “earned.” What I eventually realized was this:
Tommy Spaulding talks to people the way I read books.
That is, sometimes he has a very explicit goal oriented exchange (like, I don’t know, buying a shirt. He doesn’t devote much book time to these interactions) just like I sometimes read a technical manual to extract a specific fact. But mostly, he talks because talking is a thing he enjoys doing. He does some research to direct his efforts to the people he’s most likely to find most interesting, and he’s worked out techniques to make those conversations as interesting and rewarding as possible. If nothing useful ever came out of it he would probably change his approach. But he is not approaching anyone with the idea of what they can do for him, and he’s very conscious of the value of other people’s time. I am never, ever going to talk to as many people as Tommy Spaulding does. But I respect and value his approach, in a way I never did Dale Carnegie.
Additionally, this knowledge has helped me stop resenting people who get nice things via social interaction. Those people benefit from their hours of socializing. I benefit from my hours of reading. If I’m going to complain about the unfairness of people benefiting from social connections, I’d better be prepared to give up the advantages I gain from reading.
*That was the year I was homeschooled. The primary benefit of homeschooling was no longer attending a school where I had a perfectly reasonable fear of being stabbed, but the option to reason my way out of dumb assignments was nice too.
**I have never been married and have no kids, but I’d heard really good things and thought the principles might be useful. I was right.
***For example, suppose your goal was meet new people and advertise your professional skills, with some thought to advancing your career. You could go to to industry social events and apply HtWFaIP. But if you’re a programmer you can get many of the same benefits by contributing to open source projects. Yes, it’s a lot of hours of work for the amount of recognition and networking you achieve. But if you love programming and hate talking to strangers in crowds, it’s worth considering as a partial replacement.