‘Tact’ requires us to be in touch with the feelings of those with us when we speak or act
By Herbert Rothschild
We aren’t born with tact. It’s a learned skill, one well worth the effort to acquire.
The word derives from the Latin verb “to touch.” That’s a good way to begin an inquiry into its meaning. Being tactful requires us to be in touch with the feelings of those with us when we speak or act and to adjust our conduct accordingly.
Infants are in touch with their own feelings (hunger, pain, fear) but not those of others. Indeed, it probably takes some months for an infant to begin to realize that others even exist. Some adults never fully grasp that they do.
Fortunately, most of us realize that our world is peopled with those who care about themselves as much as we care about ourselves, and our realization carries an obligation not to offend them. Some situations foreground that obligation. For example, before we spend time in a culture quite different than ours, we want to know what might inadvertently give offense — perhaps looking directly (or not) at someone to whom we speak, or standing too close, or using the familiar form of the pronoun “you.” Such considerations are almost a given for those who do business abroad.
But most of our business is at home, and failure to conduct it tactfully can have equally unhappy consequences — dysfunctional groups, broken relationships.
Inattentiveness is the most common cause of tactlessness. We don’t take the time to attend to the situations of others that may condition the way they may perceive what we say or do. Are there significant disparities of wealth or status? Has the person recently lost a loved one or been through a divorce? Lost a job? Have a physical trait about which s/he is self-conscious? Have a personal history with the subject under discussion?
Being so thoroughly in touch with the situations of others may be well-nigh impossible, and none of us can escape an occasional faux pas. But often we don’t do as well as we could because we are so focused on our conversational point or the goal we want a group to reach that we become oblivious to the collateral damage of our pursuit. I often erred that way when I was younger.
Another cause of tactlessness is carelessness, intentionally discounting the collateral damage to others’ feelings as we pursue our purposes. In schools of management there has been extensive reevaluation of the traditional style in which the strong leader bends people to his will (“his” because it’s inherently a male style, although some women pick up on it). That style obstructs collaboration, breeds resentment and erodes corporate loyalty. The extraordinary staff turnover during the four years Trump ran the executive branch testified to his disinterest in the feelings of others.
Criticism of social media has focused primarily on their facilitation of the spread of misinformation and lies, and thus their threat to the social fabric. They pose, as well, a homelier threat to human relations, because they remove the precondition of tact — namely, the presence of the other.
Alone at our keyboards, we get intensely focused on what we want to say. It’s possible to bring others to mind as we type, but that takes a far greater effort than when we communicate face-to-face. Plus, we get no immediate feedback that might cause us to change our tone or approach the subject in a different way. It’s difficult to make course corrections after we hit the send button, which all too often we do without rereading what we’ve put down. Letter writing and mailing was a more deliberate process.
Tone is itself a challenge. Some people can’t hear what they sound like when they’re speaking, but few of us are totally tone deaf in that way. Tone in writing, however, is another matter, since tone is fundamentally associated with sound, not graphics. Professional writers, especially poets, are highly sensitive to the way their word choices and their rhythms set their tone. The rest of us not so much. Reading aloud what we write is a good way to check our tone, but how many of us read aloud our emails or Facebook postings before we send them?
After an unhappy experience, I’ve made it a practice, whenever I sense that tension has arisen in an email exchange, to invite my correspondent to have coffee or lunch, or, if that’s not possible, at least to speak on the telephone. That practice has stood me in good stead, and I recommend it.
I was prompted to write this column by some continuing difficulties within our community. It would be tactless of me, however, to specify them.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at email@example.com.