‘Talk to every woman as if you loved her, and to every man as if he loved
you and… you will have the reputation of possessing the most perfect social tact.’
Tact is the delicate skill of handling a difficult situation and coming out with everyone still smiling. Tact is the ability to steer the rabid socialist away from the right-wing reactionary without either of them even knowing the other one was there. It is that quality that those of us, who come back from every party wracked with guilt about what we said/did/ danced, long to have. There is a hint of dishonesty in tact, but a little dash of duplicity is surely acceptable if it’s to spare someone else’s feelings or amour propre.
‘Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves’, wrote Abraham Lincoln; it is an unselfish art, where the tactful one removes himself or herself from the context to think only about others. By contrast, there is something selfish and thoughtless about being tactless: at best, an inability to avoid putting one’s foot in it – at a cost to other people’s feelings or sensibilities – or, at worst, a wilful ignorance about the effect your own words can have on others. ‘A tactless man is like an axe on an embroidery frame’, says an old Malay proverb – how much better to be the one who stitches a situation back together again.