Is Tact Useful in Romantic Love?

The Ability to be “Candid Beautifully”

Posted Mar 21, 2016

“If indeed you must be candid, be candid beautifully.” Kahlil Gibran

“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Isaac Newton

Tact is a virtue that is commonly praised and rarely practiced, especially in our current society. Is tact valuable in sex and romantic love? How can we nurture tact?

What is tact?

 “Tact is the virtue of a person who is sensitive, understanding, and flexible.” David Heyd

Tact is typically praised as a virtuous character trait. However, its nature and appropriate use remain unclear. In his brilliant article, “Tact: Sense, sensitivity, and virtue,” David Heyd clarifies the nature of tact. He argues that tact entails preventing offence rather than preventing physical harm. Tact is a virtue of sensitivity in two senses: cognitive discrimination of the circumstances and empathetic considerateness of the other. Heyd further argues that tact is defined as the appropriate measure of sensitivity in particular circumstances; hence, a tactless comment may be offensive not due to its content, but rather due to the specific circumstances in which it is uttered. Accordingly, there is no such thing as an excessive measure of tact; tactful behavior can never be bad or wrong.

Heyd considers tact to be a virtue of sensitivity in two senses: cognitive discrimination of the circumstances and empathetic consideration of the other. I would add that also with other types of sensitivity, we can distinguish between the cognitive sensitivity of understanding the situation, and the sensitivity expressed in the normative reaction. The two types of sensitivity are different, and cognitive sensitivity can be associated with different types and degrees of the reaction (see here). In emotions, the normative reaction concerns the agent’s own harm. In tact, the normative reaction does not concern the agent’s harm, but rather the harm to other.

Heyd locates tact as situated in between morality and good manners. Unlike morality and good manners, tact is not governed by ruled since it refers to the particular and the unique. Hence, there are no general codes that govern tact. He asserts that tact involves selective silence, which cannot be interpreted as indifference; for example, a remark that would deflect the conversation without sounding over-protective or humiliating. As with good manners, tact is concerned with smoothing interpersonal relations, and as with morality, tact attempts to avoid harming and offending others. In this sense, the value of tact is a necessary complement to the value of morality and good manners.

In Truffaut’s 1968 film Stolen Kisses, Delphine Seyrig explains to her young lover the difference between politeness and tact. “Imagine you inadvertently enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked under the shower. Politeness requires that you quickly close the door and say, ‘Pardon, Madame!’, whereas tact would be to quickly close the door and say, ‘Pardon, Monsieur!’” (cited by Slavoj Žižek).

In addition to sensitivity and empathetic consideration of the other, tact typically involves other related capacities, such as intuition, self-awareness, attentive listening, emotional intelligence, assertiveness, politeness, discretion, honesty, and courtesy. Some but not all of these skills can be acquired.

It is interesting to note that although the value of tact is immense in personal relationships, this virtue has become almost extinct in our society. Tact takes time and patience, which are rare commodities in our throwaway and restless society.  In this society, quick results and replacing, rather than fixing, something problematic is the prevailing attitude, so that the patience required for tact has hardly any place.

Politeness in romantic relationships

“Don’t let the dog/cat sit next to you on the bed and watch you having sex.” A sexual etiquette rule suggested by Steph Auteri

It is evident that moral norms are part and parcel of loving relationships. Moral values, which seek to prevent harming the other, are just as, if not more, necessary in our dealings with those who are close to us. Since the role of good manners in romantic relationships is less obvious, my discussion will focus on comparing these with tact.

The deliberative quality of good manners is often in conflict with the spontaneity, sincerity, and openness typical of emotions. Emotions can hurt other people, and the main function of good manners is to prevent such harm; thus, good manners are a useful means of hiding genuine emotions. Teaching children good manners is to teach them, among other things, to hide their real emotions. At least in this matter, politicians are well-educated.

Good manners, which are based upon general, superficial conventions, are mainly valuable in our behavior toward strangers, who may wrongly interpret our behavior. Good manners are also of value in sensitive and highly emotional activities in which people’s meanings can easily be misunderstood. Sexual interactions are one such area and indeed there are rules governing sexual etiquette. Here are a few such examples (proposed by Gigi Engle, Sarah Stefanson, and Lindsay Tigar):

Do not underestimate the importance of foreplay, kissing, cuddling, and dirty talk;

Stop faking your orgasms;                                                                                          

Let him know if he is doing it right and what you want in bed;

Never push a girl’s head down if you don’t want teeth;

Do not rip her clothes;
This isn’t the library—you can make some noise;
Never try for the backdoor without a discussion beforehand;
A shower is not an invitation to sex;
Wait at least 90 seconds before you head off to the bathroom.

These rules are of different depth—some of them are very shallow; the deeper ones fall in the grey area between etiquette and tact. Accepting the above rules does not imply obeying all types of etiquette. Thus, one should not neatly fold one’s clothes when being undressed in the heat of sexual passion, as might be required by etiquette rules concerning folding clothes in other circumstances. Nor do these rules mean that one should be rude to one’s partner. Being rude in romantic relationships is more related to lack of respect, which is essential in such relationships, than to impoliteness.

Good manners are often deceptive. For example, flattery, which is a kind of insincere praise, is common in good manners. Thus, part of the wedding etiquette is to praise the bride's beauty, whether or not she is attractive. However, it is not part of romantic norms to tell someone that you love him just because he has declared his love for you.  In this regard, there is a true story of a lawyer who in court referred to his rival lawyer as “My good friend.” The judge asked the lawyer why he didn’t add, as good manners recommend, the second commonly used phrase, “my esteemed colleague,” saying “My good friend and esteemed colleague.” The lawyer replied: “I cannot lie twice.”

There are, of course, also cases of deceptive tact in which people behave as if they care for the other profoundly, whereas actually they are just being polite. Distinguishing fake tact from the genuine one is easier in the long-term, where the tact needs to be manifested in actual profound deeds, and not merely in nice words.

The paradox of sensitivity and trust

“You always hurt the one you love
The one you shouldn't hurt at all
You always take the sweetest rose
And crush it till the petals fall
You always break the kindest heart
With a hasty word you can't recall
So If I broke your heart last night
It's because I love you most of all.” The Mills Brother (written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher)

In profound romantic relationships, sincerity and openness are of greater value than superficial, and often deceptive, good manners. Is the place of tact in profound love similar to that of good manners (whose role in such love is minimal) or to morality (which is essential to romantic love)?

In order to answer this question, I first discuss two relevant issues: (a) the paradox of sensitivity and trust, and (b) the distinction between preventing-focused behavior and promoting-focused behavior.

Profound love includes two seemingly conflicting virtues: (a) acute sensitivity to each other, and (b) profound trust in each other. Trust seems to be associated with indifference rather than with sensitivity.

Lovers are sensitive to each other’s deeds and sayings; hence, as the wonderful old song quoted above indicates, they are more vulnerable to hurting and being hurt by each other. The price of behaving freely without little attention to the nature of the behavior can be doing and saying hasty things that may hurt the one you love (see here). Moreover, since a romantic partner has firsthand, intimate knowledge of the other, inappropriate use of this knowledge hurts even more. Truth is often more painful than slander, since it is more difficult to dismiss.    

Trust, in the sense of taking the other’s love for granted, is also typical of profound love. In the same way that profound lovers are not always on the alert or seeking for more external novel stimuli to fan their romantic flames, they should also not be always on the alert not to offend their partner (see here). Lovers should not be tiptoeing around each other; however, this does not imply being insensitive—it just excludes constantly worrying or being suspicious about the partner’s intentions and love. Profound lovers are sensitive, but they are not continually on guard. These two features of romantic love appear to be in conflict—calmness, which is associated with profound trust, seems closer to indifference than to sensitivity. Being sensitive to misdeeds may reduce trust.

The above paradox may be solved by introducing the notion of “tact,” which optimally combines the two seemingly opposed features of profound love. As tact involves the perception of the personal uniqueness of the situation, the tactful lover is in a position to provide specific help to the partner, and not merely to be satisfied with general rules of politeness. Unlike good manners, tact involves genuine sensitivity to the full extent of the (negative) circumstances, while still generally trusting the partner and continuously and empathetically promoting the partner. This is a kind of global adoration and specific accuracy. Thus, romantic partners may demonstrate a positive bias in their global perception of their partners, such as seeing them as "wonderful," yet are able to display greater accuracy in their perception of their partners’ specific attributes, such as being unpunctual (Neff & Karney, 2005). Similarly, tact involves a global empathetic attitude with acute sensitivity to specific deeds.

Promoting and preventing behaviors

“You give me hope and consolation, you give me strength to carry on” Elvis Presley

Tory Higgins (1997) distinguishes between promotion-focused behavior, which is concerned with strong ideals related to fulfilling hopes, and prevention-focused behavior, which is related to protection. In the prevention mode, interactions between people occur only when something is going wrong. The promotion mode is characterized by ongoing activities that create optimal conditions for fulfilling strong ideals. Unlike the prevention mode, where there is no sense of progress, the promotion mode involves a sense of progress toward fulfilling shared ideals. Promoting behavior focuses on nurturing, whereas preventing behavior is behavior focuses on protecting and securing the relationship. While romantic love involves both types of behavior, promoting behavior is of greater significance in long-term profound love.

Promoting behavior is associated with ongoing basic needs, whereas preventing behavior is concerned with more specific (in scope and time) aims and has more to do with survival than with flourishing. A manifestation of this difference in the romantic realm is the distinction between uniqueness and exclusivity. Uniqueness is characterized by positive terms that celebrate an ongoing ideal. Exclusiveness is characterized by negative terms referring to specific deeds. While romantic love involves both features, uniqueness is of much greater significance in the long run (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

Good manners are mainly preventing-focused, whereas tact combines both preventing- and promotion-focused behavior; its distinctive value is in using the promotion mode, associated with trust, while being sensitive to particular negative circumstances. As the romantic relationship grows deeper, the role of promoting-focused behavior becomes greater. When you know and understand your beloved well, you are in a better position to promote and nurture the beloved and the relationship, and not merely to prevent negative circumstances.

The place of tact in romantic relationships

“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

“Although tact is shown in the context of personal relationships, it does not standardly occur in intimate, that is, very close relationships.” David Heyd

The role of tact in romantic relationships is indeed disputable. It is true that when two people are very close to each other, tact may be less necessary since their profound knowledge of each other makes their interactions quite smooth. For example, when interacting with other people, one partner will not correct the other when the latter makes a minor mistake, but will choose to be silent. While this appears to be tactfulness, that choice is made out of a deep understanding and compassion for the other. Moreover, such intimate interactions may require a more profound tact, referring to deeper aspects of their life.

The role of tact in romantic relationships is indeed disputable. It is true that when two people are very close to each other, tact may be used less frequently; I believe, however, that tact in this case is more profound. The fact that tact involves empathetic sensitivity to unique personal circumstances makes it a valuable aspect in promoting very close relationships. Indeed, Heyd rightly claims that in addition to its function of preventing offence, tact has the more profound value of promoting intimacy given that it expresses personal attention to the uniqueness of the other. As promoting is an ongoing activity referring not merely to the generation of intimacy, but also to its development, tact should be present in profound relationships as well. Tact involves continuously trusting, empathetic sensitivity. I may add that a central aspect of profound love is to bring out the best in both lovers. Such love is demonstrated in claims such as: “I'm a better person when I am with her.” Tact has essential role in bring out the best in each other.

It should be noted that despite its profound value, tact is not appropriate in all circumstances—there are times when straightforward criticism is required in order to let the other comprehend your attitude. In these circumstances people may say something like “I refuse to believe I’ve lost my artful tact in the shadow of romance. I suppose he’d be happy.”

Tact often involves silence and discretion. However, as Samuel Butler said: “Silence is not always tact, but it is tact that is golden, not silence.” If tact indeed simply meant remaining silent, it will be easy to acquire this virtue. There are, of course, circumstances in romantic relationships where silence is a tactful attitude. For example, giving your current lover details about your ex-lovers may often be tactless. There is sometimes a certain value in romantic ignorance (see here).

The value of romantic tact and the (often deceptive) attempts to express it is illustrated in the following statements commonly used in romantic breakups: “It’s not you, it’s me”; "I think we need some space for a while"; “You deserve more”; ”I hope we can still be friends." These sentences may be seen as genuine expressions of tact that are attempts to lessen offence to the other; however, they are often fashionable, vain, and deceptive phrases intended to assuage the agent’s guilt. In order for these statements to be genuine, they should be accompanied by some specific details relevant to the given specific personal circumstances (which is a characteristic of tact). For instance, one might describe some of the real reasons for why the relationship should not continue despite the mutual appreciation and attraction (see here).

Nurturing tact

“Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.”  Warren W. Wiersbe

“Tact is the ability to step on a man's toes without messing up the shine on his shoes.” Harry S. Truman

In light of the significant value of tact in personal relationships, the question of whether we can acquire tact becomes very important. Heyd argues that tact is a kind of perception that can be learnt, but cannot be formally taught; hence, there are no experts on tact. He believes that the acquisition of tact comes rather through imitations, following role models, and as part of the continuous formation of the overall personality.

In light of this view, we may not be able to teach tact as we teach mathematics, but we can educate people (particularly the young) in a way that will increase their interpersonal sensitivity and their ability to behave in a tactful manner. This is also true concerning the romantic realm; tact is indeed a great way to develop and nurture long-term profound love. Nurturing tact is a major challenge for our society in general and the educational system in particular.


Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heyd, D. (1995). Tact: Sense, sensitivity, and virtue. Inquiry38, 217-231.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497.