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A friend of mine, Mrs. Ernest Gent, 175 Brewster Road, Scarsdale, New York, hired a servant girl, telling her to report for work the following Monday. In the meantime, Mrs. Gent telephoned a woman who had formerly employed this girl. All was not well. When the girl came to start work, Mrs. Gent said: “Nellie, I telephoned the other day to a woman you used to work for. She said you were honest and reliable, a good cook and good at caring for the children. But she also said you were sloppy and never kept the house clean. Now I think she was lying. You dress neatly. Anybody can see that. And I’ll bet you keep the house just as neat and clean as your person. You and I are going to get along fine.”
And they did. Nellie had a reputation to live up to; and believe me, she did live up to it. She kept the house shining. She would gladly have scrubbed and dusted an extra hour a day rather than be untrue to Mrs. Gent’s ideal of her.
“The average man”, said Samuel Vauclain, president of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, “can be led readily if you have his respect and if you show him that you respect him for some kind of ability.”
In short, if you want to improve a person in a certain respect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his outstanding characteristics. Shakespeare said: “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” And it might be well to assume and state openly that the other party has the virtue you want him to develop. Give him a fine reputation to live up to, and he will make prodigious efforts rather than see you disillusioned.
Georgette Leblanc, in her book, Souvenirs, My Life with Maeterlinck, describes the startling transformation of a humble Belgian Cinderella.
“A servant girl from a neighbouring hotel brought my meals” [she writes], “She was called ‘Marie the Dishwasher’ because she had started her career as a scullery assistant. She was a kind of monster, cross-eyed, bandy-legged, poor in flesh and spirit.
One day, while she was holding my plate of macaroni in her red hands, I said to her point-blank: ‘Marie, you do not know what treasures are within you.’
Accustomed to holding back her emotions, Marie waited a few moments, not daring to risk the slightest gesture for fear of a catastrophe. Then she put the dish on the table, sighed, and said ingenuously : ‘Madame, I would never have believed it.’ She did not doubt, she did not ask a question. She simply went back to the kitchen and repeated what I had said, and such is the force of faith that no one made fun of her. From that day on, she was even given a certain consideration. But the most curious change of all occurred in the humble Marie herself. Believing she was the tabernacle of unseen marvels, she began taking care of her face and body so carefully that her starved youth seemed to bloom and modestly hide her plainness.
Two months later, as I was leaving, she announced her coming marriage with the nephew of the chef. ‘I’m going to be a lady’, she said and thanked me. A small phrase had changed her entire life.”
Georgette Leblanc had given “Marie the Dishwasher” a reputation to live up to—and that reputation transformed her.
Henry Clay Risner used the same technique when he wanted to influence the conduct of American doughboys in France. General James G. Harbord, one of the most popular American generals, had told Risner that in his opinion the 2 million doughboys in France were the cleanest and most idealistic men of whom he had ever read, or with whom he had ever come in contact.
Extravagant praise? Perhaps. But see how Risner used it.
“I never failed to tell the soldiers what the General had said” [Risner writes]. “Not for a moment did I question whether it was true or not, but I knew that, even were they not, the knowledge of General Harbord’s opinion would inspire them to strive toward that standard.”
There is an old saying: “Give a dog a bad name and you may as well hang him.” But give him a good name—and see what happens!
Almost everyone—rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief —lives up to the reputation of honesty that is bestowed upon him.
“If you must deal with a crook,” says Warden Lawes of Sing Sing—and the warden ought to know what he’s talking about—“If you must deal with a crook, there is only one possible way of getting the better of him-—treat him as if he were an honourable gentleman. Take it for granted he is on the level. He will be so flattered by such treatment that he may answer to it, and be proud that someone trusts him.”
That is so fine, so significant that I am going to repeat it: “If you must deal with a crook, there is only one possible way of getting the better of him—treat him as if he were an honourable gentleman. Take it for granted he is on the level. He will be so flattered by such treatment that he may answer to it, and be proud that someone trusts him.”
So, if you want to influence the conduct of a man without arousing resentment or giving offence, remember Rule 7:
GIVE A MAN A FINE REPUTATION TO LIVE UP TO.