“80 percent of friendship is kindness.”

We all want friends. We all want to be liked. Most of us wish we were better liked. Over the holidays, I finally read a book about making friends that I’d been putting off for fifty years: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. One of the most famous American books ever–the headwaters of all self-help books–it was first published in 1937, has sold more than fifteen million copies and is still selling today. It’s #15 on Amazon’s all-time non-fiction list.

I had shied away from Friends decades ago–when it might have done me some good–mostly because of the title. Winning friends and influencing people sounded sketchy, bordering on manipulative. And Carnegie’s whole premise smacked of that Chamber of Commerce power-of-positive thinking that can drive even the remotely self-aware to drink.

In reading the book, I focused on the section that deals with making friends. While Carnegie’s language is homespun and his examples archaic, his suggestions ring true. If you were looking for a New Year’s resolution that would likely produce more lasting happiness than losing 5 pounds or beating last year’s numbers by 10 percent, you could do worse than studying his precepts.

Like success, lasting friendship is built on doing the work

You can study these in detail in his book, or get a fair overview on Wikipedia. If followed, his suggestions would no doubt make winning new friends far easier. Doing them scant justice–and freely quoting Carnegie–here are his six rules for making yourself more likeable:

1)  Become genuinely interested in other people. “You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.”

2)  Smile. Carnegie wants you to smile all the time, contending that all it takes to bring a little joy into others’ lives is a sincere smile, that we all love smilers.

3)  Remember your listener’s name and use it. “The average person is more interested in his own name than in all the other names in the world put together.” This suggestion works. In the late seventies, I met Quentin Kopp, then President of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. I was a total nobody and he the second most powerful man in the City. I didn’t see Quentin again for twenty years, ran into him at some event and he said, “Hey, John, how’s it going?” I was stunned at his memory. I couldn’t help but like the guy.

4)  Be a good listener. Carnegie equates being a good conversationalist with being a good listener. He suggests you encourage others to talk about themselves, contending that most people just want someone who will listen to them. (The reason even mediocre psychologists stay in business).

5)  Talk to people about what they’re interested in. “If we talk to others about their interests, they will feel valued and value us in return.”

6)  Make your listener feel important. “People will talk for hours if we allow them to talk about themselves. If we can make people feel important in a sincere and appreciative way, then we will win all the friends we could ever dream of.”

These are all solid, common sense suggestions–great ways to make new friends–yet somehow in contemplating them, Woody Allen comes to mind. “80 percent of success is showing up” is no doubt Allen’s most beloved quotation (particularly among the lazy). But it has been so universally misunderstood that Allen had to clarify it years later: “My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.” In other words, Allen meant that 80 percent of success is doing the work. Neither funny nor quotable, but true.

In a way, Carnegie makes the same mistake as the believers in the show-up-and-succeed strategy. He implies that lasting friendship is found among his rules for winning friends. His rules may be a great start–there’s a good reason his book is still selling–but smiles, names, listening and even the most genuine interest are not 80 percent of friendship.

Like success, lasting friendship is built on doing the work. The work of understanding, of forgiving, of knowing that you’re as flawed as your friends, of listening to the same stories and jokes again and again, of sharing fears, hopes and desires, of apologizing when you screw up and freely forgiving when they do. To put a Woody Allen spin on it, “80 percent of friendship is kindness.”

My deepest gratitude to my understanding, forgiving friends and my best wishes for the New Year.