All Smiles : The Dale Carnegie Brand of Optimism Is Still Winning Friends and Influencing People

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's early evening, a time when many in Beverly Hills probably are ready for a hot tub or a sensory deprivation chamber. But not the 35 or so people in a meeting room of the Ramada Hotel on Beverly Boulevard.

Nope, these folks are on their feet, ready to pound out a few hard, hilly miles on the road to self-improvement.

"MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB," the group shouts in unison, following instructor Evelyn Schlaphoff's energetic urging to belt out the nursery rhyme.

"ITS FLEECE WAS WHITE AS SNOW," they roar, producing a blast wave that could stampede elephants, not to mention sheep.

"AND EVERYWHERE THAT MARY WENT, THE LAMB WAS SURE TO GO."

No slouch at reciting Mother Goose with feeling, Schlaphoff nods and smiles approval, signaling the night is off to the right, upbeat start.

So begins another session of an American--and global--institution, the Dale Carnegie course on public speaking and personal relations, a granddaddy of self-help that numbers its graduates in the millions and maps its influence from corporate suites to political power centers.

Calculatedly corny and cunningly folksy, the Dale Carnegie philosophy continues to march vigorously on nearly 40 years after the death of its founder and namesake, a Missouri farm boy who went to the Big Apple and discovered gold in boosting self-esteem and teaching all comers how to smile, smile, smile.

As much a movement as a business, Carnegie's prescriptions for re-engineering human souls are said to have mellowed out Mikhail Gorbachev and paved the way for Stew Leonard's, the world's largest dairy store, to annually sell 47 miles worth of chickens and other poultry. (The Connecticut store also unloads 10 tons of salad and 250,000 chocolate chip cookies a week.)

With results like that, criticism is rare and hearty endorsements are easy to come by. For instance, actor and poet Macdonald Carey says Carnegie has been "an inestimable help in my life . . . I love the course. I took it twice. I took it while I was drinking. I took it when I was sober." The second time around stuck better, he jokes.

Today a privately owned multinational company with headquarters in Garden City, N.Y., Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc., has outlasted countless fads in bootstrap betterment, from one-minute managing to Marxist self-criticism. In fact, Carnegie has evolved from its bread-and-butter training in effective communication and people skills to an all-purpose Mr. Fixit for businesses and individuals, offering courses in sales, management, customer relations, "executive image awareness," and employee development.

The broad Carnegie appeal is evident in the Beverly Hills group: attorneys, salespeople, advertising and marketing executives, a corporate trainer, an ice truck driver, auto body shop operators and a stray or two from the entertainment business.

Most enrolled because they want to do better on the job, though a few say they need help in family and personal relationships. Advertising copywriter Karen Kalil wants to be more persuasive at the office, especially with higher-ups "who usually are older men."

Like actor Carey, Jaquie Shepherd, promotion coordinator for an auto accessories firm, is taking the course for the second time. "I need to keep up on the principles," she says, adding that Carnegie "becomes addictive and you want to keep on."

By evening's end each class member delivers a two-minute speech to illustrate the rewards of a Carnegie principle. All are built around the night's theme, "Becoming a Friendlier Person." The topics are down to earth: Dealing with a wife's demand for a divorce, buying an ice cream cone, making friends with a new worker on a catering truck, being kinder to children, losing a job, selling a microphone.

The punch lines to these anecdotes are also straightforward: "If you smile at people, it's going to make your life easier and it's going to make your life more enjoyable." And, "If you really show interest in other people, they'll warm up to you."

Never, never, never do any of the speakers hear a negative word, nor even a faint hint of criticism from instructor Schlaphoff. During each speech she stands in the aisle, listening intently, giving a thumbs up, smiling. At the end of each talk she strides forward, leading the applause and delivering an instant analysis of the student's effort: "a tremendous level of intensity," "a lot of energy and action" and "(you are) absolutely in charge of the classroom when you speak."

Sure, this unabashed backslapping is old hat, as much a part of the American landscape as freeways and grain elevators. But that doesn't mean it's outdated, say Carnegie executives. In 70 countries this year about 150,000 earnest students are expected to take some form of Carnegie training, with 87% completing courses. Al Johnson, who heads up the local office for Dale Carnegie Training, says 1,500 to 1,800 students will enroll in the western Los Angeles area he supervises. In all, about 3.5 million have taken a class since Carnegie delivered his first lecture in 1912.

Johnson says enrollments would be higher, except for a major obstacle. The basic, 14-session course costs $895, a price beyond the wallets of many. Often, however, businesses foot the bill, he adds, noting that 400 of the Fortune 500 companies have sponsored Carnegie training for employees at one time or another.

J. Oliver Crom, president of the umbrella Dale Carnegie & Associates, concedes that the recession has taken a bite out of a company that once considered itself recession-proof. Business is 5% to 8% down from 1991 projections, but he adds: "We're not making the profit we budgeted to make but, thank God, we are making a profit."

Crom can blame Chrysler Corp. for a chunk of this year's downside. In a massive cost-cutting program, the auto maker axed its policy of paying Carnegie tuition for any employee who wanted to take a course, saving about $500,000. However, Chrysler continues to pay fees for employees who are recommended for the training by their supervisors, a spokesman says. In fact, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca is a major Carnegie booster. In his best-selling autobiography, Iacocca praised Carnegie for teaching him how to express himself, a lesson he seeks to pass on to other tongue-tied automotive types.

Not surprisingly, President Crom prefers to look on the bright side. The fall of the Iron Curtain has opened up vast new turf, he says. Carnegie courses already are offered in Hungary and by this time next year Czechoslovakians will be taking a crack at Carnegie-style capitalism.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., Carnegie seems to be attracting a new generation of adherents, according to Nate Brooks, vice president of the Carnegie office in Long Beach, which trains about 1,350 students a year. Many young people have never heard of Carnegie before a friend or employer introduces them to the program, Brooks says.

"Carnegie is so old, it's almost new," he says.

Whatever the whims of the marketplace, it's safe to say that right now, somewhere, a new and nervous Carnegie student probably is sweating through a first speech to a group of like-minded individuals, each determined to stomp the heck out of the inhibitions, insecurities and self-defeating behavior that they believe have made them underachieving wallflowers in work and in life.

The bible for this daunting project is "How to Win Friends and Influence People," Dale Carnegie's homespun and often humorous condensation of the wisdom of the ages, culled from the lives and sayings of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Julius Caesar, Zoroaster, John D. Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt, to name a very few. First published in 1936, the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 years and has been available ever since; 30 million copies are said to be in print.

The book's early success partly was a sign of the times. Positive-thinking was all the rage and Americans, battling out of the Depression, hungered for reassurance that individuals could still succeed with hard work and the right attitude.

What the book conveys seems bedrock simple, a sort of theology of niceness and enthusiasm: Be pleasant to people and they will be pleasant to you. Be genuinely interested in other people. Never argue. Don't criticize, condemn or complain. Admit your mistakes. When you know you are right, concede that you might be wrong. Put yourself in the other guy's shoes. Remember people's names. And, of course, keep on smiling.

But Crom warns that appearances are deceiving: "These things are basic but they're not simple. . . . Don't be fooled by what appears to be unsophisticated."

Despite Carnegie's longevity and pervasiveness, it is a largely unexamined phenomenon. Over the years only a few critics have drawn beads on the program and its underpinnings of relentless optimism.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis, author of "Babbitt," was one. He argued that Carnegie was teaching a con game of sorts by teaching people "how to smile . . . and pretend to be interested in people's hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them."

In his book "The Positive Thinkers," scholar Donald Meyer spoke for skeptics when he asked if there were "no gruff or impersonal or strictly analytical or even sour-tempered successes left?" On "How to Win Friends," Meyer also commented, "As for winning friends, one of the peculiarities of the famous book was that it had practically nothing to say of friendship."

Other critics have observed that the Carnegie principles don't work all the time. Sometimes people really mean "no," whether they're rebuffing a sales call or disagreeing passionately about politics.

Carnegie believers disagree sharply with such criticisms. The founder himself said that his principles wouldn't work if they were used insincerely. And instructor Schlaphoff cautions the Beverly Hills students that "people can be unhappy if they've just been had by some Dale Carnegie principle." Among the warning signs? "Someone who uses your name 16 times in the first sentence."

Crom and other followers of Carnegie are fond of noting that Carnegie techniques have been pretty effective over the decades. Crom especially enjoys retailing a couple of stories about Carnegie inroads in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

One energetic Czech, Crom says, has found his well-worn copy of "How to Win Friends" in such demand that he loans it out only for two hours at a time.

And Crom points out that a 1990 biography of Gorbachev relates the Soviet leader's conversion to kinder, gentler ways. According to "Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin" by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Gorbachev was combative and confrontational in his meetings with Americans--until an aide advised him to read "How to Win Friends."

After the book was hastily translated into Russian for his enlightenment, Gorbachev became more polite, a better listener and more flattering when meeting with Americans. Moreover, he was able to get across all the points he wanted to make without his previous belligerence.

Concluded the authors, "It was textbook Dale Carnegie."

Six Ways to Make People Like You

* Become genuinely interested in other people.

* Smile.

* Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

* Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

* Talk in terms of the other person's interest.

* Make the other person feel important--and do it sincerely.

--From Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends & Influence People"

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