One-Minute Book Reviews

December 13, 2006

Who’s Nicer? Nancy Reagan or the Authors of The Power of Nice? Judge for Yourself

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:01 pm

The people who gave us the Aflac duck play fast-and-loose with facts in a phoned-in book about how they got ahead by being — or so they say — “nice”

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness. By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Foreword by Jay Leno. Doubleday/Currency, 127 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

For more than three decades, Dr. John Gottman has been studying why marriages succeed or fail, and one his most surprising findings is, as he puts it, “A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.” Those words come from his Web site,where he adds that a man has “a shaky marriage” if, for example, his wife says, “My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,” and he replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.”

Why does it matter that it’s the man who can “accept influence” and not the woman? “A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well,” Gottman says.

This is far from obscure research. Gottman has been quoted widely in the media, and I found his words with one click by doing a Google search for “Gottman + influence.” So we may assume that Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval either know little about the research they say supports their ideas or intentionally misrepresented it in The Power of Nice. Here’s how they describe Gottman’s views: “For example, say you call your husband to tell him you have to work late (as we confess to doing on too many occasions) and your husband says that he’s upset because you’ve worked late every night this week and he was looking forward to having dinner with you. You could just snap at him and say, ‘Well, do you think I want to spend the evening scrutinizing invoices?’ Or you could be a bit nicer and say, ‘Sorry, sweetie, but these invoices are due tomorrow.’” Kaplan Thaler and Koval have not only changed the sexes but show the woman doing exactly what Gottman says not to do – refusing to yield – though they go on to allow that she might “consider” her husband’s view.

Would you say that these authors were being nice to Gottman? Or to you if you had spent $17.95 for a book about succeed in business without resorting to techniques like – well, misrepresenting people’s research?

How you answer will no doubt affect how you see The Power of Nice. Is your view, “Hey, everybody makes mistakes, even women who run an ad agency with nearly $1 billion a year in billings! And, besides, they gave us the Aflac duck! I love that duck! Af-LAC!” And do you think that everybody needs to be reminded now and then of all those things your mother told you like “call your grandmother, for goodness’ sake – she’s dying to hear from you!” even in a book that is supposed to be about kindness in business?

If so, you may well like The Power of Nice, because it has lots more tips like “call your grandmother” in little boxes called “Nice Cubes.” It also has many stories about celebrities who got ahead by being “nice,” although the authors have fairly bizarre ideas about who fits this category. For example, there’s Donald Trump. And there’s Bill Clinton, who qualifies because “he shook everybody’s hand on the ship” while sailing to England to begin his studies at Oxford. So lying to your wife and the American people – and getting impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice – don’t count if you shake enough hands?

Books that tell you things you know can work in several ways. They can support a familiar idea with such good writing and research that they make the concept seem fresh. This is what Malcolm Gladwell does in Blink, which offers in part a new way of looking at the cliché, “trust your instincts.” Books that rehash what you know can also work if their authors serve up their ideas with a lack of pretension. This is what Robert Fulghum does in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum doesn’t presume to tell you how to “conquer” the world with his simple precepts such as, “Warm milk and cookies are good for you.” He just tells what he has learned. (His title isn’t All You Really Need to Know …) Finally, such books can work if we know enough about their authors to take for granted that they are experts on their subject. Most of us don’t need to be sold on the idea that Jack Welch knows about Winning, the title of his latest book (written with his wife, Suzy Welch).

But we do need to be sold on the idea that Kaplan Thaler and Koval owe their success, as they say, to being “nice.” And on this count the trouble starts on the cover of The Power of Nice. No, not with that black-and-yellow half smiley-face, but with the lack of a credit for their writer, Sara Eckel, whom they don’t mention until their acknowledgements. Kaplan Thaler and Koval argue that in order to succeed, people must be willing to “share the credit” with those who helped them. Agreed. And one way authors “share the credit” is by listing the names of writers who have helped them on their cover and title page, connected to theirs with a “with” or “and.” Celebrities who have done this include Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, Chris Evert, Aretha Franklin, Larry King, Colin Powell, Dan Rather, Cal Ripken Jr., Norman Schwarzkopf, Sam Walton, and Jack Welch, to name just a sampling of those I found in a few minutes at a public library. Some of the people who have credited their writers their on the cover of their books wouldn’t make anybody’s list of “The Ten Nicest Celebrities I Know” including Nancy Reagan, Mike Wallace, and Donald Trump (who praises The Power of Nice on its dust jacket – now there’s a recommendation for you). Kaplan Thaler and Koval may well be nicer people than Nancy Reagan. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Best line: The authors quote a freelance graphic designer who bribed people who didn’t pay their bills on time with offers of baked goods: “I would send out reminders of past-due invoices with the enticement that if paid by a specific date, I would reward the client with fresh baked cookies, brownies, cake – whatever they wanted. And it worked.” This idea is either wacko or brilliant, I don’t know which.

Worst line: “It’s no coincidence that ‘Thou shalt not lie’ is one of the Ten Commandments.” As comedians used to say, “Vas you dere, Chollie?”

Recommended if … you haven’t called your grandmother lately and think it would be worth it to pay $17.95 to have a permanent reminder to do so.

Editor: Roger Scholl

Published: September 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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