Jane Austen, pleasantries and social glue

One day, all the popular kids got together for a chat

I watched Erika Napoletano’s TedxBoulder talk last week. It’s called Be Unpopular, and it discusses the advantages of ‘being human’: saying what you think, being direct, and foregoing ‘popular’ in order to find like-minded peeps.

I liked this talk for many reasons – she’s an entertaining speaker with a solid message – but it also got me thinking about why it is that we feel the need to be polite to people in the first place.


It’s my observation that the language people speak is directly related to their behaviour and social norms. Which comes first I’m not sure, but there’s a link.

  • I currently live in a German-speaking culture. In this neck of the woods it’s not considered rude to dispense with ‘niceties’ and say what you’re after as directly as you can.
  • I have also travelled to many of the states of America, and lived on the east coast and Tennessee, where I noticed there are varying degrees of extraneous fluff that seem to be required to pad out your message. (This includes, ‘We must do coffee’. Which doesn’t mean anything except, ‘I acknowledge you’.)
  • While travelling in Japan, I felt very relaxed, despite not knowing any of the language. Much of this I attribute to the fact that people (those I met and those I passed) were extremely polite and respectful. (There are downsides to ‘keeping it all in’, of course: suicide rates are high. Just sayin’.)
  • And, again, a generalisation, but taken from experience – I find Australians like to spin a good yarn, but will quite comfortably cut to the chase and be honest when need be.

All of this leads me to the point where I can say I found Napoletano’s Tedx talk amusing, and appropriate (interesting) for the culture in which she lives.

Forward momentum

When I think about social pleasantries, I sometimes think of my friend who is an ambitious leader and a high-performer, but who can be abrasive and downright rude to the little guy if the little guy ‘wastes her time’ by, for example, speaking too slowly when she has places to be. She gets twitchy. Her attention wanders.

Okay, the little guy is me. I’m an introvert, and I often need time to think before I speak. Or while I’m speaking. And I know her well enough to be able to tell her to take a chill-pill and listen.

But compare Friend 1 with Friend 2, who has a similar personality but makes an effort with social pleasantries. She still gets twitchy, but she’s polite about it and visibly makes an effort to bring her focus back to the little guy. And I tell you, it makes a difference. To the little guy.

Social glue

Jane Austen is the Queen of Writing Social Glue. Built into her works are the social pleasantries and expectations that provided structure and boundaries for characters inhabiting a particular socioeconomic strata of British society in the early 1800s.

At the same time, Austen manages to juggle juicy subtext by showing body language and ‘unspoken’ communication between her characters, sometimes even while they are ‘performing’ the expected pleasantries.

Many of Austen’s characters rail against expected behaviours, especially the women – and rightly so: there was very little choice for women in those days. Marry (and up the social ladder if you can) or be doomed to a life of spinsterhood and burdening your parents. The quality of your social performance could make or break you.

The roads and the weather

Speaking of burdening your parents, I remember as a teenager thinking, “For the love of Mike, would you stop going on about the weather? It’s irrelevant! It’s boring! And don’t get me started about those old people who talk endlessly about the cold. Let’s keep it real!”

What I really meant was: “Let’s talk about ME! And stuff I’M into.”

Jane Austen would turn in her grave. Or maybe not.

On the one hand, if everyone went around wearing individualistic goggles, we’d have a society of people who bore no social responsibility whatsoever. Children would suffer. The little guy would suffer. The elderly would suffer.

On the other hand, I doubt any woman would want to go back to the restrictive expectations for social behaviour that were prevalent in Austen’s time.

As I tell my kids, some people only want to talk about stuff like the roads and the weather. And it’s good to respect that, because you don’t know their backstory. You don’t know if they’re having a bad day, or playing their ‘safe conversation’ card for a reason. You don’t know their cultural background, or whether they’re just a major introvert buying time while they collect their thoughts.

Life is but a dream

One good thing about social pleasantries is that they slow things down. It’s not always necessary to have an agenda, or to attempt to optimise every aspect of your interaction with others of the species.

I like to think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, for whom shooting the breeze was a way of life. Sure, they didn’t have deadlines or presentations to deliver (only the occasional funeral to attend). But a grand old time was had, telling stories and sitting in silence on the riverbank.

One good thing about blogging – and any social media, of course – is that readers have a choice. Unlike being stuck in the office – or on a raft on the river – if your reader doesn’t like the inside of your head, they walk away. Kill the window, mid-sentence.

It’s nice to have that choice. I think Austen would approve.


PS. Taking a short blogging break. Back in March to talk about disposable literature.


  1. hmmmm… being a friend of yours and an ENTJ…. hoping my Midwestern upbringing gives me sufficient social pleasantries? ;)

    1. You are the queen of social pleasantries, Bez, and I must say your kids are pretty awesome in this regard too. (Didn’t realise I had so many ENTJ friends. Lucky me! :))

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