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How to Be Tactful

Three traits that make tact and compassion come naturally

"Tact is an exquisite sense of the symmetry of things" –Oscar Wilde

We all know that it’s good to be tactful, but rarely do we wonder how to motivate tact. We treat tact as a goal and say, “Just do it.” A goal is not a plan. Nor is “Just do it.”

We think of tact as an aspect of politeness, best cultivated through self-censorship: Always appear authentically tactful whether you mean it or not. Here instead is an approach to achieving authentic tact naturally, not as a strategic contrivance but as a representation of a heartfelt realism about ourselves and others, tact cultivated in three kinds of realistic balance, or as Wilde says, “symmetry”:

1. Symmetry of culpability (I wouldn’t put it past me): Stop thinking of yourself as an exception. You’re not. What other people do, you do too. The fact that you can see them do what you don’t like, and can’t see yourself do it doesn’t mean you don’t do it, since we’re all worse at seeing our own flaws than other people’s flaws.

Cultivate symmetry of culpability. When you’re about to point your finger at someone for a behavior you don’t appreciate, symmetrically point one at yourself. Think of particular times when you did something similar to what you’re about to accuse the other person of doing. That way you’ll overcome your tendency when scolding to think you’re an expert straightening out a deviant, justified in being as tactless as you want. Symmetry of culpability doesn’t come naturally. When we’re feeling accusatory we get a kind of amnesia. Our minds flush out any recollection of ever having done something like what we’re accusing the other of doing. An exquisite sense of symmetry must be cultivated. Exceptionalism is just so tempting.

Likewise, when we gossip about, or laugh at the folly of others, we should make sure to dilute our scorn with some self-effacing recognition that there are times when we fall into similar folly. Laugh at them in the context of laughing at yourself, in the context of laughing at us all, at human nature itself.

2. Symmetry of Ambiguous Value (One man’s good bet is another man’s bad bet): A behavior that in one context is wrong is, in another context, right. For example, we all falsify, withholding or distracting from the truth. When we do it with good intentions it’s called being tactful, diplomatic or telling white lies. When we do it with bad intentions it’s called lying, conning or manipulating people. The behavior by itself is indistinguishable. It’s instead distinguished by means of our predictions of who will benefit and suffer from withholding our truths.

If we predict that withholding our truths is going to be better for others we think of it as a virtue. If we predict that it will be worse for others but provides some self-serving benefit, we think of it as a vise.

People will make different predictions and anyone’s prediction can prove wrong, and in symmetrically opposed directions. We can predict that revealing the truth will benefit others and discover later that it didn’t. We can predict that concealing the truth will harm others and and discover later that it didn’t.

Remembering that actions are of ambiguous value breeds compassion and doubt enough that we are less inclined to come out swinging when we accuse people of immorality as though the obvious thing to do is always staring us all in the eye. This symmetry of value motivates tact in our accusations, not just strategic tact but heartfelt tact borne of a recognition that our accusation is an opinion, not an objective decree from on high.

3. Self-tact (Embrace the follies of humankind through compassionate introspection): A friend checked himself mid-scorn the other day. He was just getting catty about someone else’s lack of self-confidence, and mid-sentence he said “…though, come to think of it, sometimes I lack self confidence like that also.”

The same day another friend was lamenting her clients’ tendencies to resist inconvenient perspectives. A few minutes later I suggested an inconvenient perspective and it was clear from her instantly dismissive response that she simply couldn’t or wouldn’t consider it.

In both cases, what was at play was a third element of the exquisite symmetry that motivates heartfelt tact. To be able to consider one’s own flaws and failings requires a tactful approach to introspection, the ability to accuse oneself tactfully, just as you would hope to accuse others tactfully.

The first friend had cultivated the ability to self-effacingly admit to himself that he lacks self-confidence too, empathy for himself borne of empathy for the human condition. The second friend lacked that tactfulness with herself. She holds herself as the exceptional expert who doesn’t suffer the flaws that others suffer. Should she discover a common human flaw in herself, she’d be in for as tactless a reprimand as she needs to deliver to others. If instead, she had compassion for herself, she could have it for others.

But then where’s the exceptionalist’s fun in that? Better to maintain some face-saving hypocrisy.

Though come to think of it, I do that too sometimes.