The Problem: I have a colleague at work who has started telling me very personal things about her marriage. We don’t know each other very well, and I’m not sure why she’s confiding in me. I am a sympathetic person, but I consider this coworker somewhat manipulative and insincere. All the same, I want to be able to step away from these conversations without hurting her feelings. It may sound cold, but I want to go back to talking about the weather.
The Answer: Several parallel situations occur in Jane Austen’s work. Here is a partial list:
In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele forces her confidences about Edward Ferrars on Elinor Dashwood. This is quite painful for Elinor, since she is in love with Edward. Although we all want to strangle the odious Lucy, Elinor takes a nonviolent route and simply does her best to avoid private conversations. In your case, this would mean never going to the bathroom, the lunch room, or any common area. Avoid too much coffee.
In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford forces her confidences about Edmund Bertram on poor Fanny Price. This is quite painful for Fanny, since she’s in love with Edmund. Fanny sits in a cold room and suffers. Should you follow Fanny’s example, you will have to purchase a shawl, listen patiently, and make noncommittal sympathetic noises. Alternatively, you can purchase ear plugs.
In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe offers Catherine Morland a friendship both insincere and manipulative. If this description fits your coworker, don’t introduce her to your brother. She will break his heart. And yours.
Another possibility: You put aside your desire to discuss the unseasonably warm weather in the northeast and offer a sympathetic ear to this suffering, lonely woman.