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Finding the right words can be difficult when worked up or incensed – emotion often takes over so you’re left either speechless, incoherent or just wanting to shout! Equally awkward can be situations where you need to say ‘no’ or express concern politely or curiosity gets the better of you – you want more information but don’t know how to get it without seeming nosey! Here’s where Jane Austen might be able to help.

When I reread Pride and Prejudice recently, it struck me just how tactful some of the characters are. Of course that shouldn’t be a surprise as the characters were ruled by the conventions of ‘polite’ society but their skill at ignoring critical remarks, laughing them off, countering or expressing a frank opinion without offending made me think I could learn a thing or too.

So here’s a Jane-Austen style guide for such tricky circumstances:

1. Don’t rise to it!

Sparks fly almost every time Lizzy comes into contact with Caroline Bingley. The latter is very helpful in pointing out all of Lizzy’s faults to Mr Darcy, just in case he was too distracted by her ‘fine eyes’ to notice, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind in her rival’s presence.

With only one exception I can think of (the Netherfield Ball when the two women discuss Mr Wickham), Lizzy just lets this wash over her or rejoins without showing much, if any, emotion. Her replies surprise Miss Bingley, who can’t say anything further without overstepping the mark. Job done.

To imitate Lizzy’s style:

  • A brief reply is all that’s needed. In response to Miss Bingley’s veiled criticism of her talents, she simply says “I am not a great reader, and take pleasure in many things.” Simple and to-the-point. No need to get worked up. And now you can get back to your book feeling quite pleased with yourself.
  • Find humour in the situation. Lizzy excels at this!
  • Ignore an intended criticism. See 1st bullet point. Mr Darcy is also master of this in his conversations with Miss Bingley.

2. Take a leaf out of Jane’s book

She doesn’t think badly of anyone without proof and even then she avoids a falling out!

3. Politely refuse to dance

This might still work in the 21st century, or might be stretching it too far…

Lizzy has no intention of dancing with Mr Darcy at Lucas Lodge early on in the book. To escape, she simply says “Mr Darcy is all politeness” and then when pressed, walks off.

So step 1: deflect the question and step 2: walk away! Mr Darcy didn’t take offence to that so hopefully the man who asks you won’t either.

4. Persuade without forcing the point

Mrs Gardiner is a model of tactfulness. She also possesses the power of persuasion: see her warning to Lizzy about getting too involved with Mr Wickham.

5. Be a good Samaritan

Mr Darcy is perhaps the surprise entry here. He doesn’t like the way Caroline Bingley excludes Lizzy from their walk around Netherfield and says they should go into the avenue where the path would permit all four of the party to walk together.

6. Change the subject

Elizabeth does this successfully on many occasions when the conversation, usually started by her mother, makes everyone feel a little awkward.

7. If all else fails, be honest.

Say how you feel with authority but without raising your voice. Case and point, Mr Darcy.

When he’s had just about enough of Miss Bingley criticising Elizabeth, he counters with “it is now many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance”. It also works nicely as a compliment 😉

So there it is, Jane Austen’s unofficial guide to being tactful. Now to give it a try…

I’ll be doing a follow-up post on how to (or how not to) refuse a marriage proposal so do check back for it and see what you think.