Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pride, Prejudice and Roses

As most Jane Austen lovers know, Pride and Prejudice was originally called First Impressions because it dealt with Elizabeth Bennett's first impressions of Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Miss Bennett's views undergo a significant change throughout the book, even as Mr. Darcy alters himself to some extent due to her criticisms.

Shakespeare also addressed first impressions.  Juliet said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  She was illustrating that only Romeo's family name was her enemy, not Romeo.  While this rang true for Juliet, it didn't for her and Romeo's community.  Other people's perceptions regarding what the family names and legacies meant caused great tragedy for the young couple.

It would be wonderful if most people were more like Eliza Bennett and thoughtfully reconsidered their first impressions, including those based on names or labels.  The reality, though, is we often don't get a second chance.  Labels matter, not just in literature but in life.  How we name or label things and people, including ourselves, often is not just the first but the only impression that stays in others' minds.  

As an attorney, I usually defend corporations.  But if I can help it, I never call my client "the defendant."  It doesn't sound warm and fuzzy.  Instead, I usually use a shortened version of the company name.  The lawyer on the other side is much more apt to write and talk about "the defendant," "the big corporation" or "the company" on the other side of the courtroom.

When I started my own law practice five years ago, I noticed that other lawyers and businesspeople reacted differently depending how I described what I'd done.  If I said I'd become a solo practitioner, which means a lawyer who practices without other partners or associates, people almost invariably made jokes about me starving and asked if I worked from home.  I wasn't and I didn't, but it sounded defensive if I pointed that out.  On the other hand, if I said I'd just started my own firm, people looked impressed and asked where my office was and whether I was hiring.  That made a much better start to the conversation.

Likewise, people are much more excited if I say that my thriller The Awakening is an Amazon Occult Best Seller, or even if I say I independently published it through Amazon, than if I say it was self-published.  All three things are true, but each conjures a different image.  The first sounds the most successful and exciting.  The second sounds brave and entrepreneur-like (to create my own word).  The last evokes a vision of poorly spelled stream of consciousness sprawled across a page -- or in today's world, an e-reader -- that sold twenty copies to the author's friends.

The words we use to describe ourselves and our endeavors matter not only to how people perceive us but to ourselves.  Some of the best advice I ever got was from a business development coach at my old law firm.  He encouraged me to tell my clients about my creative writing because he thought they'd find it interesting, and it was something they'd remember about me.  I was hesitant because I felt sort of apologetic about it.  I'd had some articles, short stories, and poems published, but also had gotten stacks of rejection letters for my five unpublished novels.  (The Awakening is the sixth novel I completed.)  The coach said to me, "Lisa, you are telling yourself this story that you're not successful because you haven't gotten a publishing contract for a novel.  You don't understand how few people who want to write have finished anything, let alone a novel, let alone submitted anything for publication or had something published.  Stop focusing on what you haven't done and instead focus on what you have."

He was right.  Not only did clients react positively when I spoke about my excitement about writing and what I'd accomplished, I felt better about it too.  Just like I feel more accomplished and professional when I tell someone I run my own firm.

What names and labels do you use to describe who you are and what you do?  Are there other more positive words that would create a better first impression?  If you're a rose, let people know!

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and author of Amazon occult bestseller THE AWAKENING, short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR, and numerous poems, short stories, and articles.  She is currently working on THE AWAKENING, BOOK II: THE UNBELIEVERS.

Follow her on Twitter:  @lisamlilly

Read sample chapters of The Awakening:


  1. This is so true. People who write or who are in marketing contemplate this every day---but it's a good reminder for everyone to consider their words.

  2. For Jane Austen fans who happen on this post, I just heard (on 11/2/13) about Ever Jane, a Jane Austen Role-Playing Game. I've never played an RPG, but I might need to try this one.