“The point of tact is not sharp” (Colleen Carney).
I DON’T KNOW OF ANYTHING MORE WIDELY PRAISED YET RARELY PRACTICED THAN TACT. Nearly everybody thinks tact is a good idea, but hardly anybody uses it. This may be because tact is such a hard habit to learn. It’s one of the biggest challenges in the world.
Tact would be much easier if it only meant remaining silent and leaving some things unsaid. But while there is more to tact than this, as we shall see in a moment, most of us have room for improvement even at this preliminary stage. Just because a thought enters our head, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be verbalized. It’s only a fool (and a rude one at that) who says everything that comes into his mind. Common sense tells us some things are better off left unsaid.
But there is more to tact than silence. As Samuel Butler said, “Silence is not always tact and it is tact that is golden, not silence.” If there is something you think about me — perhaps a criticism — you’ve got to decide whether to say it. After considering the matter, you may decide not to say it: perhaps it’s not clear whether the criticism is justified, it’s not very important in the greater scheme of things, or it’s simply not your place to talk to me about it. By your silence, you’ve been tactful. But if you remain silent about something you should talk to me about, that’s not tact. As Frank Medlicott wisely noted, “Some people mistake weakness for tact. If they are silent when they ought to speak and so feign an agreement they do not feel, they call it being tactful. Cowardice would be a much better name.”
When we speak, however, it takes wisdom to know how to speak. “Tact,” as Henry W. Newton said, “is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” And as Franklin P. Jones put it, “Tact is the art of building a fire under people without making their blood boil.” Doing these things is hard. It calls for great earnestness and effort.
But we must try. We must learn tactfulness. And I want to conclude with this observation: it is with those who mean the most to us that we should be the most tactful. Closeness is no excuse for rudeness.
“Don’t flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).