Humor me, if you would, with a quote from Jane Austen’s timeless Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth: “Your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.”
Mr. Darcy: “And yours is willfully to misunderstand them.”
Here we have the prejudiced protagonist and her prideful suitor, exchanging unsolicited criticism of each other.
True to the name of the novel, these characters embody two fundamental behaviors of humans in society: pride and prejudice. It requires the full course of the novel, involving countless scandals and injustices, for each of them to finally cast aside their rigid mindset and embrace each other’s love.
Now, we all know that wisdom grows with age. The more of life we experience, the more we learn, and the better we become at navigating this challenging world we live in.
However, the process of gaining that experience invariably entails many mistakes, embarrassments, and frustrations – these are unfortunate but necessary ingredients to learning.
Yet it turns out we have a resource that is almost as good as experience: books! Books pack the author’s lifetime of experiences into compact stories that are overflowing with wisdom and lessons to live by.
Few books stand the test of time as well as Jane Austen’s handful of novels. They were written in the early 1800s, but they could be set in any period in history, because the themes Austen weaves into her stories transcend time.
Her works offer an incredibly rich and thoughtful investigation into the absurdities of society. She illustrates how we humans sometimes behave in the most perplexing and confounding ways, often to our own detriment.
Today, we’re going to explore Jane Austen’s writing to see what we can glean from a true master of social interactions.
Ready to dive in?
Back in Jane Austen’s time, people could only converse with people to whom they were introduced. If you had no formal introduction, you mustn’t speak to them! Luckily for us, things are much more relaxed these days. All we have to do is muster the courage to introduce ourselves to someone and make some fun but meaningful small talk.
There is so much we could cover with her novels, but for today, we will focus on three fundamental human behaviors: pride, prejudice, and the spectrum of sense and sensibility.
You’ll find that so much of what goes awry in Jane Austen’s novels is very similar to what goes wrong in our own lives. And it all stems from miscommunication – things that we misinterpret, things we fail to say, and things that we cannot unsay.
Let’s begin with pride.
Mr. Darcy’s pride is what prevented him from garnering Lizzy’s affections. He condescended her humble upbringing and lack of social connections. At the same time, he was so proud of his own heritage that, when he eventually proposed to Lizzy, he was certain she would accept.
And his pride led him to a shocking surprise: his wealth and noble birth were not enough to win Lizzy’s love.
This is a powerful reminder to us all.
We encounter pride every day, in ourselves and in others. We might be too proud to show sympathy, admit a mistake we made, or even acknowledge our own feelings about something or someone.
Pride is what prevents us from being compassionate, empathetic, and open with others. In other words, it prevents us from connecting with our fellow humans.
Prideful people are hard to be friends with, and they themselves will struggle to make friends.
Luckily for Mr. Darcy, he eventually learned that Lizzy was less impressed with his fancy lifestyle and more impressed with his kindness and gentlemanly behavior. Spoiler alert, happy ending!
So cast aside your pride and embrace your own flaws as well as the flaws of others. None of us is perfect and that’s what makes us beautiful!
Prejudice is also on the list of no-nos in social interaction.
As humans, we’re constantly analyzing everything around us and attempting to match it all with patterns that we recognize. This is a vestige of our caveman days when we had to assess potential dangers and threats. And that caveman programming makes us super judgy.
Lizzy formed her opinion of Mr. Darcy almost as soon as she met him. She pegged him as a pompous, self-centered, aristocrat who sneered at people he deemed beneath him. It took months, and the passionate protestations of Mr. Darcy’s servants, friends, and sister, for her to accept that Mr. Darcy might actually be a kind and attentive person. Once Lizzy overcomes her prejudice, she discovers that she’s actually smitten with him.
Lizzy’s behavior is all too familiar.
When we meet someone, we attempt to pigeonhole them into a certain type of person. When someone says something, we try to fit that into the paradigm of who that person is and what they represent.
This type of behavior, while easy to fall into, is much too reductive. It assumes humans are simple and easily understandable. Yet, as you know from interacting with your siblings and significant others, we most certainly are anything but simple.
In our modern era, where the people we meet have wonderfully unique lives and experiences that we cannot begin to know or comprehend, prejudice must be squashed.
Replace it with respect, tolerance, and patience. Spend the time to truly understand the other person before you begin to form your opinion of them. And once you form your opinion, do not cast it in iron. Allow it to evolve as your relationship with that person deepens.
And most importantly, if your opinion is a negative one, allow for the possibility that what you deem negative is instead the result of a miscommunication or a lack of mutual understanding.
Sense and Sensibility.
With sense and sensibility, you can think of it as a spectrum.
On one end, you have sense, which is your emotional reactivity. This is driven by how the things people say and do make you feel. At the edge of this side of the spectrum, you are quick to laugh and quicker yet to anger. You are a tempest of emotions that can overwhelm the people around you.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have sensibility. This is your ability to act logically and rationally to the things people say and do. At this edge of the spectrum, your behaviors are stiff and robotic. You appear cold, heartless, and distant to others.
In social interactions, we need to have a balance of both. Not everything warrants a strong emotional response. But we also want to show some feeling. We don’t want to be rigid or unempathetic.
As you may recall in Sense and Sensibility, one sister has excessive sense and the other has excessive sensibility. Their extreme positions on the spectrum causes them much grief and anxiety. It is only after they move away from the edges toward the center of the spectrum that they achieve inner peace. Yep, another happy ending.
Now everyone falls on a different point on this spectrum. It’s worth spending some time to figure out where your position is, along with the position of those who are close to you.
By being more aware of this spectrum, you will be able to better understand why you and those around you act the way they do. And it will better equip you to respond in a thoughtful, respectful way.
Phew, that was a lot of Jane Austen. And I feel like we were only just getting started! Let’s stop there for today because we already learned so much.
- Pride is a denial of our humanity. Our flaws make us unique and therefore beautiful. Embrace that and you will find it much easier to make friends and to keep them.
- Prejudice is a hood we have over our heads, blinding us from reality. Remove it, and you’ll see how bright and wonderfully diverse our world is. You’ll never be bored again.
- Sense and sensibility both have their place and purpose. Attune yourself to that spectrum and make sure you aren’t too far on either extreme.
These are just a few of the many lessons Jane Austen imparts on us in her novels. If you haven’t had the pleasure, I highly encourage you to dive into any of her books. Take your time with them and relish their wisdom along with their satirical hilarity.
The reality is that the world would be a better place if we all could take her lessons to heart. So, let’s get to it!
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I would love to hear about a lesson you’ve learned from a great book you’ve read. It doesn’t have to be Jane Austen. How did it change the way you thought about the world? Who would benefit most from learning it? Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
Happy Explearning ⚡