The Great Jane Austen Guide to Manners at Work

You’ll already know the works of Jane Austen, which all take place around the turn of the 19th century. But have you watched the award-winning TV series The Great? Billed as ‘an occasionally true story’ about Catherine the Great’s marriage to Emperor Peter III of Russia, and her subsequent attempts to overthrow him, it’s set a few years before Austen’s stories, in the latter half of the 18th century.

If Jane Austen’s stories are all about manners, then The Great is their very rude counterpart. Yet as the 21st century gathers pace, they both have a lot to teach us about workplace etiquette…

Consider first impressions

Pride and Prejudice is so concerned with first impressions that Austen originally called it First Impressions. Over two hundred years later, they are still important and you must do what you can to create the best possible one. But consider too the first impressions you take of other people, and how they might not always be the full picture. For example, most people are blinded by Mr Darcy’s wealth (in today’s money his land value stands at £350,000,000), without knowing that he also helped rescue Elizabeth Bennet’s sister from scandal. Don’t assume that the public facade you see in the office is all there is to a person.

Be proactive, not passive…

As Catherine the Great so dramatically demonstrates, those who are proactive prosper! You might not be aiming to become Empress of Russia, but if you want success, you need to take charge of your career. Just like Catherine, plan strategically, gather information, network, get a mentor, do whatever it takes to put yourself in the room. And unless you want to be seen as pushy, cold, or self-interested, it is imperative that you do all these things with a warm and friendly politeness!

…but not too proactive

One of the most common mistakes career-driven graduates make is to talk when they should listen. Take your cue from Jane Austen, whose razor-sharp social commentary was only possible through careful observation. The next time you speak with someone at work, instead of lining up your reply, turn all your attention to what the speaker is saying. Not only will you accumulate knowledge, wisdom, and insight, you’ll gain a reputation for being a good listener too.

Don’t be rude about the boss

Peter III of Russia is a despotic leader who decapitates his enemies and displays their heads at dinner. Your boss might not be that bad, but even if you think they’re an idiot, keep it to yourself! They will find out what you think and it will jeopardise your career. And remember, it’s often those who we don’t automatically feel comfortable around that can teach us our biggest lessons. If you really don’t believe you’ve anything to learn from being with your boss, then leave. Although they’ll probably be writing your reference, so try to maintain a courteous respect!

Be positive

Polite positivity isn’t about agreeing with everything everyone says, or Mr Collins’ squirming levels of obsequiousness in Pride and Prejudice. Marial, Catherine the Great’s maid, does it best. Demoted from her high place in society to her current lowly role when her father was caught doing unspeakable things to Peter’s mother’s corpse, Marial is determined to help Catherine bring down Peter. Even when all hope seems lost, Marial’s own brand of positive pragmatism and determination propel Catherine forwards. Marial provides her boss with practical help, clever plans, insider information, enthusiasm, and a sympathetic ear…all of which eventually lead to success. So how could you do the same? What three things could you do today that show positivity at work and incredible support for your line manager?

Show common courtesy

According to Jane Austen blogger, Brenda Cox, Austen uses the words ‘thanks’ or ‘gratitude’ 722 times in her novels. Austen and her characters operated within a milieu of strict social constructs, and modern manners are no longer so prescribed. However, their basic premise remains the same; to make others feel comfortable in our company. Holding doors open (for both sexes!), saying good morning to passers’ by, acknowledging other people in the room, and saying please and thank you, are all important gestures that hugely influence the way we are perceived.

Don’t shake hands…yet

In her book All things Austen, Kirsten Olsen says ‘women could choose to shake hands, even with a man, though conduct books indicated that this was a favour to be distributed with care.’ These days it’s not just women who might exercise caution! Due to coronavirus many people still feel uncomfortable about physical contact, so it’s probably best to nod and give a huge smile instead when meeting new colleagues for the first time.
You’ll already know the works of Jane Austen, which all take place around the turn of the 19th century. But have you watched the award-winning TV series The Great? Billed as ‘an occasionally true story’ about Catherine the Great’s marriage to Emperor Peter III of Russia, and her subsequent attempts to overthrow him, it’s set a few years before Austen’s stories, in the latter half of the 18th century.

If Jane Austen’s stories are all about manners, then The Great is their very rude counterpart. Yet as the 21st century gathers pace, they both have a lot to teach us about workplace etiquette…

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