Book Review: Always Know What To Say

Always Know What To Say: Easy Ways To Approach And Talk To Anyone, by Peter W. Murphy

[Note: I read this book earlier this week and delayed posting it as I had a backlog of books read.]

As I was reading this book during my lunch break, and talking about it, someone compared it to Dale Carnegie’s classic of self-presentation How To Win Friends And Influence People. It is a fair comparison to make. For myself, I am rather ambivalent on how to review a book like this. On the one hand this book (and many like it) serve a valuable function in helping to instruct shy and awkward people on how to present themselves in ways that are useful for social survival, and they also serve to increase respect for those who master interpersonal skills, and the suite of talents it takes to get along well with people. Such skill deserves to be appreciated. That said, this book (and others like it) tend to have a smug superiority at the betters of the authors and make all kinds of accusations of selfishness and negativity to shy people and ‘nerds’ that is unbecoming and quite frankly unnecessary to make the point that it is wise to take an interest in others, to know what is of general interest, and to be a good listener who has a default position of positivity towards others [1]. These are all good things that do not need a smug attitude towards others.

In terms of its contents, this particular book is somewhat evenly balanced in overall scope, but not in terms of individual chapter length. The first chapter, on ten of the most common barriers to comfortable conversation (which include shyness, replaying bad experiences instead of good ones in one’s head, poor knowledge of subjects of general interest, a lack of interest in others, and poor attention to dress and appearance), takes up slightly more than half of the book. The rest of the book, when it is not selling the audio tapes and other books of the author, includes conversations tips, skills, and strategies, ways to calm social nerves, interesting topics, questions, body language and listening techniques all designed to increase success and lower stress in conversation. These tips are generally useful, and I find that somewhat by chance and observation I have picked up on most of them by being someone who is attentive and generally interested in those around me, even if a few areas of social life are still a bit stressful. Still, the tips are sound and helpful for those willing and able to learn them.

In general, this book (and others like it) are strategical and conception and tactical in their execution. While the advice they urge is sound from a pragmatic perspective, if someone merely uses those techniques to appeal to others without genuine sincerity of heart in the well-being of others or real interest in others, such techniques become overly salesy and manipulative. The fact that this author, and others like him, generally write in such a way as to appeal to the pragmatism of readers in overcoming natural shyness by thinking positively, having a short memory when it comes to failure, and practicing what works suggests that the misuse of such technique-driven work was not entirely undesired or unexpected. Books marketed in such a way as to denigrate intellectuals and focus on a superficial appeal without being driven by character concerns tend to create armies of superficially appealing people who have mastered the minors (the techniques) but not the genuine concern in others that gives those techniques legitimacy and meaning. Ultimately, books like this are useful, but can also often be pernicious in the smugness of their conception and the mercenary nature of their implementation.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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