I respect tact

I would never say that tact is the most important virtue. Of course it’s not. In a way, it can be quite a paltry thing, and at times it conceals a deeper moral ugliness.

But if I’m being honest, I have to admit: there are few qualities I respect and admire more than exceptional tact.

Anyone can blunder into the occasional tactful social maneuver, but to do it with particular consistency and deftness reveals a lot about a person.

For one thing, tact reveals an exceptional and subtle intelligence. You have to grasp all the dynamics (and probable dynamics, and possible interpretations and misinterpretations) of a situation, to be tactful in a way that is effective and not merely well-intentioned. Not only that, but upon sizing up the situation insightfully, it is also necessary to think quickly through a range of possible responses, and to think on your feet, adapting as you speak and as you read the responses of the people you’re speaking to. That by itself wins great respect and fondness from me.

But that’s not all it shows. It shows how perceptive a person is, how attuned to people and able to read the nuances of speech and gesture and faces.

It shows at least some level of moral sophistication, to care about others around and to wish to guide the conversation in a good direction. I think this might relate to what used to be called “good breeding,” that is, an upbringing that taught people how to care about the others around them and not focus solely on one’s own desires and reactions.

With all virtues that are not the greatest virtues, they (or perhaps some close facsimile) can be deployed for unsavoury goals. It is easy to imagine the businessperson who has learned to use something like tact to put people at ease in order to squeeze more profit out of them. I have at times found people whose tact I respected but whose character I ended up disappointed by in some way or another. But more often, I think, such tact seems to turn out to be an expression of a deeper virtue and goodness within an unusually perceptive and intelligent person. That’s why, when I encounter it, I always immediately take it as a sign of promise, and a reason for hope and celebration.

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