What Would Jane Austen Do? A Guide to Social Media Etiquette
Jane Austen novels are full of characters who make astounding social errors.
From Mr. Collins over-ingratiating himself with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice,” to Emma’s very cruel and very public snubbing of Miss Bates in “Emma,” Austen’s novels illustrate perfectly how not to behave. And though they were written 200 years ago, the social lessons translate to 2014.
Take social media. Much has been written about bad manners and blunders on social media, but here are a few I’ve experienced recently, discussed in the context of Austen’s most uncivil characters.
We all have “friends” who do this. Barrage us with images of food they’ve cooked, food they’re about to eat in a restaurant, drinks they’re about to consume, people they’re about to consume the drinks with.
Then there are the 20 pictures of their kids they post every other day. Then there are the Bible verses, the political messages, the inspirational sayings, the photos of those people on “Duck Dynasty” praying. You can’t hit the unfollow button fast enough.
The Facebook over-sharer reminds me of Mrs. Elton in “Emma,” continually boasting about her musical abilities, fashion sense, and her “connections” in Bath.
Don’t over-share on Facebook. Though you are sharing with your friends, no one wants to know the minute details of your life. Before you post something, ask yourself whether you would talk about the content of your post at a crowded cocktail party.
The value of “connections” is a pervasive theme in Austen’s novels. Many of her most admirable heroines are overlooked due to their “low connections.” In Austen’s case, a person’s “connections” include their family members, patrons, and friends and their corresponding social ranking.
Take General Tilney in “Northanger Abbey. “ He is interested in Catherine Morland only as a potential wife for his son because of Catherine’s connections with the wealthy Allen family.
In 2014, “connections” have a different connotation, but there are still rules about how you acquire connections on LinkedIn. Recently, I received this LinkedIn connection request: “I see that your company is hiring for a part-time communications associate. Let’s connect so we can talk about how I can fill this role.” Oh, really? I have no idea who you are, and you want to connect only so I can help you get a job.
Treat invitations to connect on LinkedIn like introductions at a networking event. You wouldn’t approach a stranger at an event and open with, “Can you help me get a job at your company.” So, don’t do it on LinkedIn.
Have an actual conversation
In part, the novel “Emma” is about a huge communication error between Mr. Elton and Emma. Emma has picked Mr. Elton as a suitor for her friend Harriet. But Mr. Elton has his eye on Emma. He sends letters and riddles to her house and Emma believes these are meant for Harriet, but they’re actually intended for Emma. It’s not until Emma and Mr. Elton have a conversation that the mistake is cleared up.
Have you ever worked with someone who refuses to pick up the phone, insisting that everything can be solved through email or texting?
We all know the types of misunderstandings that occur with electronic communication. It’s difficult to convey intent and tone through a text message or email. Some situations call for human-to-human interaction, even if it can’t be face to face.
When you can, opt for a phone call. Have an actual conversation. Clear up the situation with a 10-minute discussion instead of sending 10 emails. And texting is no substitute for a conversation, either.
More than love stories, Austen’s novels are comedies of manners that resonate across the centuries. Before you send that LinkedIn invitation or share a post on Facebook, think “What would Jane Austen do?”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentifed Miss Bates.