The 9 best quotes about work from the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey
If you’re a fan of the TV show Downton Abbey, then you know all about Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and her razor sharp wit. If you haven’t watched the TV show, you’re in for a treat. Played by Oscar-winning actress Maggie Smith (who also played Professor McGonagall for Harry Potter fans!), the Dowager Countess is filled with brilliant one-liners and responses. It’s only fitting, as she reigns supreme as the leader of the fictional Grantham family of (the also fictional) Downton Abbey.
But you don’t need to be a 19th century aristocrat to benefit from the Dowager Countess’ wisdom. Her wit and one-liners offer legitimate lessons for 21st century work and business. We’ve brought together some of her top quotes – and explained how the lesson is still as fresh today as when she spoke the lines back in the 1900s.
9 – You don’t have to like everyone to be successful
The quote: “I don’t dislike him. I just don’t like him, which is quite different”
When the Dowager Countess said this quote, she was being challenged on someone she said something negative about. In this case it was Sir Richard, who was set to marry the Dowager’s granddaughter, Mary Crawley. Initially, the other characters thought she simply didn’t like Sir Richard and thus was being negative about him. This retort, though, showed that the Dowager may not like Sir Richard, but she doesn’t dislike him either, so her comment should stand on its own merit.
A very similar thing can happen in a workplace. You don’t have to like all your coworkers. Depending on the size of your organization, that simply may not be possible – there are too many people to meet, let alone have the time to like. But you also don’t have to dislike everyone, either. There is a middle ground where you may not like them but don’t dislike them either.
As you continue your day at work, remember that you can still engage with people – whether you like them, or not, or something in between. You can be critical if need be but you can also acknowledge their better qualities. Chances are you’ll need to work with these people for a while, so making it pleasant is often the best strategy.
8 – There’s a time and place for everything
The quote: “Principles are like prayers; noble, of course, but awkward at a party”
When the Dowager Countess said this line in Downton Abbey, she was talking about when another character, Cousin Isobel, overshared about her principles when it came to helping people. While the Dowager is not against helping people – in fact she helps multiple characters throughout the show – she doesn’t believe it’s necessary to talk about your feelings and principles at all times.
Instead, she prefers to keep conversation pleasant and hold off on the “real” things like morality until you are alone or in the company of trusted friends and family.
In the 21st century, society is much more accepting of people sharing their morals and principles at work. It’s arguable this has made work a little more human, since you can get to know someone fully as you work with them. When coworkers are closer, work tends to be better and more efficient, so there’s definitely an argument to be made here.
What the 21st century workplace can take from this quote, though, is that there are still areas where it may not be appropriate to bring up your principles, no matter how deeply held. This doesn’t mean you can’t have them nor should you be forced to compromise on them, but simply that you choose to not bring them up so that the event or function operates a little more smoothly.
7 – Focus on your strengths
The quote: “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class”
When Edith, one of the Dowager Countess’ granddaughters, complained about her circumstances, the Dowager delivered this line. Now one of the most famous quotes from Downton Abbey, it’s typically seen as a very snarky comment. However, it was quite the opposite – the Dowager Countess was tired of hearing her granddaughter complain when she had, in truth, little to complain about. So she told Edith to stop complaining.
In the 21st century, this quote would likely be considered very classist. To imply that the middle class is defeatist and does nothing but complain is rude at best. However, this line, in all of its sass, has a buried lesson: thinking you will fail is more likely to make you fail.
Instead of complaining of hardship, the Dowager Countess would advise to count your blessings and focus on your strengths. That way you can accomplish much more. And, as the Dowager Countess would share later in the series, many of life’s problems solve themselves when you focus on how you’re going to get ahead instead of how you’re being held back.
6 – Let loose sometimes
The quote: “Life is a game where the player must appear ridiculous”
During the first Christmas Special episode of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess was talking to Mary’s stiff-collared fiance, Sir Richard. The family was playing charades and Mary was doing a funny interpretation of a book title. Sir Richard seemed appalled that Mary would make a fool of herself in that way, to which the Dowager responded with this quote.
The parallels to the 21st century working world are fairly easy here.
For one, there are many instances at work where you have to appear ridiculous in order to get what you want. A common example is guerilla marketing, where people pull of crazy stunts, like walking around town in an animal costume, to get press for their company.
Secondly, sometimes you have to help out another coworker in a way that makes you feel ridiculous. Maybe that’s writing annoying tweets or seeming funny in a meeting to lighten the mood with a client. There are many times where people have to put pride aside and enjoy the moment, which is what the Dowager was really getting at with this comment.
5 – Count your blessings and move past problems
The quote: “No life appears rewarding if you think about it too much”
By most accounts, the Dowager Countess had a charmed life. She was born into a rich family, married even richer, and became a prominent member of the British aristocracy.
However, there are many small parts of the Dowager’s life that were not very pleasant. Some were even downright awful. Viewers of Downton Abbey find out that she’s had many deaths of friends and family, including her husband. Further, her parents were incredibly harsh with her, as was her mother-in-law. Finally, she reveals that she fell in love with another man but could never be with him, as divorce was impossible at the time.
Despite the bad things that happened, though, the Dowager maintains a positive outlook on life. She encourages others to do the same. Dwelling on the bad things, she said, would only bring misery.
In the 21st century working world, this quote still holds meaning. There are many things to gripe about when it comes to working. For example, the late nights, the annoying coworkers, or never making enough money. But focusing on those will only bring more misery. Instead, look at the legitimately great things that happen. Look at the things you love at your job or the things your job empowers you to do like travel or build a family.
4 – Never stop solving problems
The quote: “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve”
Downton Abbey is full of drama and there’s little a character can do about it – at the start. When the Dowager Countess said this immortal line, it could have been about anything in the show. In fact, she said this quote near the end of the series when all the women of Downton were having challenges in life. Mary’s new beau was nearly killed in a racing accident. Edith has just been turned down by the love of her life. And Lady Grantham, the Dowager’s daughter-in-law, was fighting with her husband about volunteer work.
In the 21st century workplace, this quote seems even more relevant than when the Dowager spoke it in 1920.
When you’re at work and something goes amiss, you have to solve it. When you’re doing the regular parts of your job, you’re simply performing a solution to a problem that you already know. If you take on “stretch” assignments at work, you’re solving more problems.
On top of work problems, there’s always work-life balance questions and challenges that come up, giving people more problems to solve. Once you’ve solved those, more will inevitably pop up – even if it’s the simple problem of figuring out what to eat for dinner one night.
Having problems means you’re human, and this Dowager Countess quote shows that perfectly.
3 – Be clever
The quote: “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”
When Lady Sybil, another one of the Dowager Countess’ granddaughters, makes a comment that a young man and young lady want to be alone for very specific reasons, the Dowager replied with this razor sharp quote. This was in the “Drawing room” after dinner, when the ladies of the house would have tea and perhaps a drink while the men talked business in the dining room. It was often a time of jokes and lively conversation with family and close friends, but the Dowager would not have inappropriate talk no matter the audience.
In the 21st century working world, the lesson of this quote is still fairly obvious. When people want to make a point in a meeting or impress someone, they often resort to comments or jokes that can be quite rude. It’s all done to get a laugh – they aren’t trying to be rude or vulgar, but it happens nonetheless.
Wit, on the other hand, requires a bit more intelligence. To frame a sentence such that you’re answering someone’s question properly but also implying something else that goes completely unsaid, but totally understood, is a difficult task. The Dowager was a master of the witty reply, as you can see, but it took her decades to cultivate this skill.
If you’re not a master of wit yet, this lesson can still apply to you – avoid vulgarity at all costs and don’t make jokes where a person’s failure or inappropriate actions are the reasons people laugh.
2 – Don’t complain – change your circumstances
The quote: “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.”
When Edith was sad about the state of her life – Downton fans know that Edith is usually the character with the most unfortunate circumstances – she tries complaining to her grandmother, the Dowager Countess. Hoping for some sympathy, she gets this quote in response. It’s cutting, perhaps, when you consider that this quote comes at a time when Edith’s dreams of marriage were cut down a second time.
However, it comes with a real valuable message: find something to do.
For the 21st century worker, this quote applies regardless of gender. It also works whether it’s about a problem in life or a problem at work. The quote is fairly simple, which is the Dowager saying that whining gets you nowhere. Instead, look at what you can do. You have a brain and reasonable ability (or sometimes a great deal of ability), so your only task when things are horrible is to find something you can do to improve your lot.
There are many modern quotes that share this same message, making this quote timeless.
1 – Rise to any challenge
Isobel: “I suspect she’s quite a tough nut.”
Violet: “And I’m quite a tough nutcracker.”
When Violet (the Dowager) and Isobel talk to each other in Downton Abbey, you can be sure there’s a good quote to come out of it. In this case, Isobel and Violet are talking about a woman who is standing in the way of something Violet wants to accomplish – never a good thing for the other person. Since Violet is the type of person to always get what she wants, it becomes clear that she’s also willing to do whatever it takes.
Her rising to any challenge is admirable – and a lesson that works no matter which century you’re in.
In the modern workplace, there are many challenges that come to employees. Regardless of whether you’re good at your job or not, there will be things – or people – that stump you. The key is to know your value and rise to any challenge that stops you from reaching your goals. Take a note from Violet’s book with this quote. You may be facing a tough nut to crack, but that just means you must be a tough nutcracker.
There’s also another hidden meaning in this quote: when times are tough, you need the right tools. Violet didn’t say she was a tough hammer, for example. She said she was a tough nutcracker – the perfect tool to crack a tough nut. A hammer would have shattered the nut, breaking apart everything including the seed in the centre, which is what Violet was after the whole time. By choosing the right tools, you get to the right solution.
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