Author and journalist Lotte Jeffs was acting editor-in-chief of ELLE magazine before moving into advertising as a creative director and publishing her first book. She regularly writes for The Times, The Guardian and the Telegraph. She was named Writer of the Year at the Press and Publishing Association Awards in 2016.
Lotte’s new book, How to be a Gentlewoman: The Art of Soft Power in Hard Times is published today by Octopus. We spoke to her about how we can all be a little more gentle to ourselves and each other, and why a true gentlewoman never runs for her train, gets drunk… or gossips.
What prompted you to write How to be a Gentlewoman?
I first had the idea after reading Country Life’s 39 Steps to Being a Gentleman. I thought it would be fun to come up with my own version for women, so I wrote a listicle for ELLE. My list was based on traits I admired in other women, like ‘Has a signature drink’ and ‘Can assemble an IKEA cabinet in under an hour’. The piece did really well and seemed to resonate with readers.
Then, following a discussion with my agent, I realised this idea was actually about a more robust way of being in the world. Underlying all the characteristics I’d identified was a sense of self – an idea that you have to like yourself, be kind to yourself and have a degree of charm.
I also thought about my own story of becoming, so the book contains some elements of memoir, about my journey from a place in which I lacked roots and was in a bad relationship, and then experienced the death of my cousin who was more like a sister to me. I talk about being in the worst place and building myself up from that, and about what it means to be happy. So from a throwaway list it soon became something more meaningful.
Who, for you, best exemplifies the qualities of a gentlewoman?
In the world of social media, I really admire an author called Otegha Uwagba, who has written a book of advice about work called The Little Black Book: a Toolkit for Women in Work.
Author Elizabeth Day who has a podcast and a book called How To Fail, is a friend and somebody I can go for a drink or dinner with, who just makes me feel good about myself. She possesses the gentlewoman’s skill of listening really well. I always come away from seeing her feeling uplifted and inspired.
Then of course there’s Michelle Obama: queen of the gentlewoman! She’s so poised and chic but also understands the strength in openness and sharing her story. She’s also not afraid to dance in public!
Tilda Swinton and Gillian Anderson are both actors who have survived the effect of fame and come across as so grounded and down-to-earth, and who are both really stylish in the way they dress.
I also really admire the young actress Amandla Stenberg, who uses her platform in such a smart way to speak out about politics, and LGBTQ issues but she straddles the heavy stuff and the lighter side of life in a ‘gentlewomanly’ manner.
How to be a Gentlewoman was partly inspired by an 18th-century etiquette manual. What were the most striking similarities between the challenges facing women then and now?
I wrote the book in the British Library, where I found these dusty old tomes from as early as the 1740s. They were very pious and quite religious, but also about being learned and coming across well.
Some of the advice was very archaic but I was surprised to come across some that was relevant to how we live now. There was an interesting chapter on letter writing and correspondence which could be applied to social media today – advice on thinking about what you say, the quality of syntax, and brevity. There was also an emphasis on the importance of being a good listener, an active listener. There was even a section on getting dressed – thinking about what you’re going to wear and laying out your clothes the night before.
You discuss the challenge of engaging with social media and having an online presence, while also maintaining boundaries and control. What is your advice for best retaining this balance?
I think we need to approach it with some humour and perspective. Sometimes people take it all too seriously – social media is what it is, and if you’re seeing too many glamorous shots of girls in bikinis – so what? We should be intelligent enough to sift through those and ignore them. I would say let people do what they want to do: don’t police others, just unfollow if necessary.
Choose what platform is best for you. Personally I’m terrible on Twitter. It’s like being at a drinks party where you’re surrounded by this endless banter cycle. I prefer Instagram.
Think about what you’re going to say. There are certain things that it’s best not to put out there, that are better shared with a friend on WhatsApp. And care, but care just enough – don’t overthink a post to the point where you’re debilitated.
I think we need to approach social media with some humour and perspective
You describe an incident, shortly after you were appointed creative director at Ogilvy, when a top advertising executive publicly denigrated your experience and qualifications. Can ‘soft power’ really stand up to this kind of ignorance and aggression?
I think it’s about measuring your response to the situation. In that situation I responded with soft power and it was absolutely the right thing to do, but if someone was coming at me with violence and aggression or homophobia – I might find it harder to be so measured in my response. I’d really try to feel whatever I needed to feel but then allow some distance between that feeling and my public reaction. It’s rarely a good idea to respond in the heat of the moment.
In cases like the incident I describe, soft power diffuses the situation so the other person has nothing to come back on. You have chosen to be the grown-up.
I emailed the person who had tweeted about my appointment to suggest we meet for a coffee, and he replied, ignoring my invitation but mansplaining advertising to me, telling me that I had effectively taken the job away from a creative director (the implication being a male creative director), who would have had to work his way up in the industry.
I responded: ‘So how about that coffee then?’ And he never replied. My response didn’t give him space to attack me on any other levels.
How is the art of the gentlewoman best deployed at work, when time constraints and a heaving in-tray can make us overly focused on tasks and to-do lists?
It can be exhausting to feel that you need to be talkative and charming all the time with your colleagues at work, as if you were at a drinks or dinner party. Sometimes you just need to put your head down and get your work done. Instead, get something social in the diary with your colleagues – for example, all going out for lunch or for drinks after work. Find space to connect socially when you can be entirely in that moment, not distracted by work.
There’s also a case to be made for accepting that you’re never going to finish everything. Conscientiousness is quite a female trait, but there’s always work; you’re never going to get it all done – and if you do, you’re going to get more work. It’s accepting that this is what it means to be in a job and not trying to finish everything
Also, ask yourself: do you really need to clear your inbox every day? Isn’t it better to go home and have a nice dinner with your partner?
Finally – and this is something I think is the cornerstone of being a gentlewoman – try and take a lunch break. Don’t just buy the same Pret or Boots (the worst!) sandwich every day to eat at your desk. What’s really going to happen if you leave your desk for an hour?
I think we can all be so worried about other people’s reactions – even if we’re just running late in the morning. In reality, no one else really notices as long as on the whole your approach is diligent.
Try and take a lunch break. What’s really going to happen if you leave your desk for an hour?
What is your top tip when encountering a room full of total strangers at a party or networking event?
Firstly, locate the bar and walk over to it confidently. Make your first drink a glass of water and maybe have a chat with the person behind the bar. Gather yourself. Then get an alcoholic drink if you drink.
Stand with confidence, with a neutral, soft expression, and make eye contact. Survey the room – is there anyone on their own, anyone that you want to talk to, professionally? Is there anyone wearing something fabulous that you can compliment them on?
Don’t hover. You know when you end up on the edge of a group, trying to insert yourself? Walk away. When you do find someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to say ‘Hi, I don’t know anyone,’ introduce yourself, and ask questions. Often we feel like we’re the only one in that position, but it’s worth thinking the best of people. People are generally kind and generous emotionally
Don’t drink too much – alternate soft and alcoholic drinks. And if you’re not having a good time? Just leave.
If you find yourself hovering, walk away
And finally. Does a gentlewoman…
Run for her train?
No. Catch the next one – you don’t want to be sweaty and flustered. If you live in the countryside and the next train isn’t for half an hour, you can break out a little trot.
Do her make-up in public?
I don’t think she does – I think it’s quite an intimate thing that should be done at home. Just allow yourself more time. Having said that, I have a good friend, the beauty director, Sophie Beresiner, who does video tutorials called Make-up on the Move.
Make the tea in the office?
I would only do it if everyone else was doing it. And if it’s only women making the tea, I definitely wouldn’t do it. I would say, judge the situation and don’t feel you have to make it.
No. You can drink and enjoy alcohol without getting drunk. Being drunk can be quite embarrassing as an adult, and it can make the people you’re around feel awkward and uncomfortable
But definitely enjoy a drink. You can be on the verge of being drunk – say, for example you’ve had a negroni and then a negroni, and suddenly you’re ‘oops I feel a bit drunk’.
This is a tricky one because gossip can be fun and bonding. But no, a gentlewoman shouldn’t – not about people’s personal information. Gossip can be mean-spirited. I think we should all challenge ourselves on it a bit more.
Eat a ready meal?
I’m hesitating because I have definitely eaten a ready meal, but I think if you are going to, make it a nice homemade one like COOK.
I’m not draconian in the things I suggest, so if getting a ready meal means you’re going to be able to do something else for yourself – read a book or clean out the loft, then fine.
Leave the washing up?
No. Play some music or a podcast while you tackle it. You can do it.