The Company We Keep, Then and Now, Pro and Con

The Company We Keep, Then and Now, Pro and Con

I’ve been re-reading some favorite Jane Austen novels and re-watching the corresponding movies and TV shows, reflecting on how few options for socialization people had in those days, especially outside of large cities. No phone, no texting, constraints of both time and etiquette on writing letters. One had to mingle with whoever lived nearby to have any significant social life.

For estate holders, their employees and cottagers, lots of land meant only one or two other estates, and probably a small village, were close enough for a short visit. No wonder that in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas were best friends. Few, if any, other young women lived close enough.

For servants and working class folks, variety in social life could be even more difficult. They had little leisure time. Even visiting a neighboring town might prove impossible.

Housemaids had it worst—first to rise, about 4:00 AM to tend the fireplaces, and late to bed, about midnight. Servants might snatch a bit of conversation here and there if they were working or eating together. They got one half-day off per week. I would have found it hard to choose between going out or grabbing a few extra hours’ sleep. They might walk into the nearest village and, after doing any personal errands, briefly visit a friend before heading home for evening chores.

One couldn’t avoid certain individuals. Say a man proposed to a woman who refused him. Or one silently suffered unrequited love for another—like Col. Brandon for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, or Harriet Smith for Rev. Elton in Emma.

How painful for the one in love to attend a neighbors’ party and conceal their feelings while their beloved danced and flirted with others. And how awkward for one who refused a proposal to dine with her former suitor. Yet, if either repeatedly failed to show up at neighborhood events, s/he could end up a recluse. There just wasn’t any other social life going on. Neighbors might even stop inviting them.

One might have to socialize with unpleasant people. Large landowners often had a “living in their gift.” This meant the landowner could give, or even sell, the position as pastor for a church on the estate. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas married William Collins, to whom Lady Catherine de Bourgh had given a living. Lady Catherine was extremely wealthy, and so, could afford to be rude and obnoxious. Yet, Charlotte had to accept at least two invitations per week to Lady Catherine’s home.

And speaking of churches, then, as now, they were places where people could meet and chat. But most neighborhoods had only one church. So those in Mr. Collins’s neighborhood had to endure his shallow, insipid sermons and his slavering obsequiousness toward Lady Catherine if they wanted to mix and mingle with others after the service.

As for those house servants, imagine not only working with someone obnoxious, but having to share a room with them at night!

I wouldn’t like to have lived back then. But every coin has another side. The fact that people had fewer friends to choose from, and had to meet them in person, meant that they had to learn basic conversational skills, manners and tact. Moreover, they learned to be at least civil around individuals who had hurt or wronged them.

Nowadays, most people have many options for social contact. Etiquette no longer requires that two people be introduced by a third party, known to both. We can introduce ourselves. Faster travel allows us to socialize outside our own neighborhoods. And most people now live in cities or towns, so we have more companions to choose from and more places to meet, all close at hand.

We might have to work with people we don’t like. Sadly, some even have to live with someone unpleasant, or worse. But unless you’re housebound, you can find compatible friends and spend significant time with them.

We don’t have to hang around someone who doesn’t return our love, like Col. Brandon did with Marianne Dashwood. Got a rude, inconsiderate employer? At least you don’t have to spend two evenings per week keeping them company, like the Collinses did with Lady Catherine.

However, I feel deeply concerned at how people now actually avoid the richness of a leisurely conversation with a good friend, giving each other their full attention. I fear that young people aren’t even learning the skills of polite, full-attention conversation.

Not only the young people, but also some middle-aged, now spend hours and hours a day on their smart phones “keeping up” with where their friends are and what they’re doing. But what do they know about what their friends think or feel on a deeper level? Do they even take time to understand their own feelings? Some experts believe that up to 40% of the population is addicted to smartphones.

How can I teach them the further refinements of persuasive, consensus-building communication, which almost always requires face-to-face interaction, if they don’t know the basics? How can I teach them tact and The Silver Rule when the remoteness and indirectness of social media actually cause people to write more harshly than they would speak in person?

I suppose my best bet is to continue practicing what I teach, appealing to a prospective client’s interests in speed, efficiency and effectiveness. Keep emphasizing that written communication, at best, takes longer to resolve a difference, and at worst, makes resolution impossible. I can explain that, with the right skills, a real conversation can get them even more of what they need or want by uncovering and addressing their friends’ interests. Thus, they build bridges, rather than burning them.

Of course, I first have to get these smartphone addicts’ attention and draw them into a real conversation—with me!

How do you balance the technological and personal safety advantages of a smart phone with rich, meaningful conversation?

2 comments

  1. Thanks, Margaret. I try to balance! I hold meaningful conversations in several groups – my 2 book groups, my sister grannies, and TEAM Westport where we discuss racism and its implications. Sometimes I hold meaningful conversations with my husband! and often with my daughter. Harder with the 2 sons who are far away in Nigeria, but with the younger son we do converse in a meaningful way. When I facilitated a conversation the other night at our library, that was meaningful. I’ll write about tonight so you can read what happened.

    • Congratulations, Catherine. It’s largely up to us “mature” folks who grew up on real conversations to model those skills for younger people, or even older people who have fallen out of practice. That’s what you are doing.

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