A quick lesson on winning friends and questioning your ethics

MY NEW company has me reading books as part of my training program. Paying me to read is like paying me to eat candy. The next thing you know, they'll give me a pony, along with a stable and extra money for the pony's upkeep.

Last week I picked up Dale Carnegie's classic self-help book "How to Make Friends and Influence People." Carnegie's message, full of simple and workable tactics to get along better with others, still is freshness to me. I was reading it for the second time; a zillion years ago, back in high school, a teacher assigned it to me, and for good reason.

I was a competent writer and not a complete slacker in my journalism class. So I'd thought I was a shoo-in for a position helping to edit a section of the paper. The first month of my sophomore year, the editor in chief and the journalism teacher received applications and dispensed jobs.

I got a rejection of sorts. I wouldn't get a standard editorial position, they explained, because I needed to work on my people skills. And they were right; I was singularly inept, or at least so I perceive my younger self in the fish-eye lens of memory. So they made up a proofreading position for me. And, in the meantime, the adviser advised, I should read Dale Carnegie's book.

The book laid out psychological principles and consequent useful behaviors in a systematic and friendly way that I'd never seen before. And they work. If you try to listen to the other person more than you talk yourself, the other person will feel important and like you more. If you avoid bluntly correcting someone, and instead subtly get the other person to realize his mistake while conversing pleasantly with you, he'll be more likely to admit the error and fix it gladly, because it's not an issue of contention that gets his hackles up.

It was like learning manners, at a higher, more theoretical level. Reading the text now, I see yet another example of the mastery of the human mind over the seemingly inchoate universe, finding underlying principles and exploiting them. We master the physical world, we master logic and reason, and we master each other. No matter how much Carnegie protests that one should only interact with others sincerely, that we should mean it when we sound interested in their stories, there's a reason we call manipulation cold-hearted.

My boss further points out that some of these tricks only work so long as the other person hasn't read Carnegie. He fears the day when his seatmate at a conference insists, "No, tell me about YOUR trip!" So the Carnegie technique is like secret manners, if there is such a thing, courtesy that makes someone like you until they sense the mindfulness behind your smile.

Tricking someone feels icky even if it helps someone else as a side effect. If you know that car dealerships get desperate to fill their quotas at the end of the month, then you'll buy your cars then, to get a better price. The salesperson might just be glad you're buying at all, so the situation becomes win-win, as Carnegie advocates. But, despite all Carnegie's pro-sincerity protestations, he ultimately aims to get his readers the better end of the deal.

My high school newspaper almost certainly benefited from the people skills I learned from "How to Win Friends and Influence People" (I got an editorial position the next year) as I do and as my new company will. So I wrestle with a question of fairness. If I smile and joke and listen someone into buying something useful, then — intentions aside — the result is good, and a utilitarian ethics might pronounce it A-OK.

And maybe I will become a more likable person. You become what you do; fake it till you make it.

But what about treating other people as free agents, just like us? What about treating you as a You instead of an It, an end in yourself and not just a means to my desired end?

I worry that I'll start reading people like books, just like I read books, hastily and hungrily, and if no one catches me at it, then my secret will be all the more horrible for my being its only keeper.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week; you can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.