6 Nov 2023

Social Tact

Tact is the skill of handling a delicate situation and emerging with everyone still smiling. It is the ability to steer the staunch socialist away from the right-wig reactionary without either of them even knowing the other one was there. Those of us who come back from every party wracked with guilt about what we said or did long to possess tact.

The ability to do or say the right thing, however delicate or challenging the situation, is rooted in a well-developed sense of empathy, the ability to understand how other people are feeling. This means that you are alert to every scenario, able to rapidly assess possible pitfalls or awkwardness and have the skill to smoothly steer away the conversation from the danger zone. If embarrassing or awkward questions must be confronted, you will be able to do so in the most tactful way possible, ensuring that you minimise upset or distress.

Tact, or the lack of it, is threaded through our every encounter. If you are interacting with friends or colleagues who you know well, then you should be aware of their circumstances, preoccupations and vulnerabilities, and therefore able to calibrate the possible impact of what you say or do. It could, for example, be a case of resisting the temptation to bang on about your promotion to your unemployed friend, remembering not to moan about the service in your luxurious holiday hotel to the colleague who hasn’t had a holiday all year, or steering the conversation away from anecdotes about much-loved pets because you’re aware that one of your friends’ dogs has just died.

A tactful person is adept at weighing up the benefits and downsides of blurting out the truth and may well decide that a discreet silence or swift change of subject is the better option. If somebody is telling you about how much they are looking forward to the holiday they’ve booked in a place you really didn’t like, the tactful option is to say nothing, or maybe to gently steer them to the better end of town, the least crowded beach, the acceptable restaurant. The booking has already been made and what is the possible benefit of clouding their sense of excitement and anticipation with you own gloomy prognostications?

Indeed, it is often the case that your opinion is sought when it is too late for it to have an impact – on home décor, clothes, food, holidays, and so on. In these instances, people are seeking endorsement, not the unvarnished truth, so the tactful option is to eschew a completely honest answer and instead find something positive to say.

Hosts and hostesses in particular benefit from a highly developed sense of tact. As they observe proceedings unfold, they need to be aware of social dynamics and alert to possible pressure points. They should be ready at any stage to intervene with a polite interjection, an elegant change of subject, an introduction, a plea for help (asking someone to assist you with serving or social duties is a tactful way of heading off rows or confrontations). The most tactful people can steer and manipulate conversations so subtly that nobody is aware of their machinations and manoeuvrings.

Ultimately, tact is about generosity of spirit, and comes from a genuine desire to build a positive and constructive environment in which relationships can develop and thrive. It is an invaluable skill professionally, as it helps to build a congenial atmosphere in which there is a willingness to listen to other people and work together to solve problems.

Inevitably, there is a hint of dishonesty in the whole notion of tact, but a little dash of duplicity is surely acceptable if it’s to spare someone else’s feelings. It is an unselfish art, where the tactful one removes himself or herself from the context to think only about others, and that can never be a bad thing.

By contrast, there is something selfish and thoughtless about being tactless: at best, a crass 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. This is often the case with iconoclasts and disruptors, who enjoy provocation and thrive on discord, frequently causing discomfort and distress to other people. “A tactless man is like an axe on an embroidery frame”, says an old Malay proverb – how much better to be the one who stiches a situation back together again.


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Get In Touch
Subscription Enquiries
+44 (0)330 3339699
General Enquiries
+44 (0)20 3950 5240
Join our weekly newsletter
Subscription Form
MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Designed by Anna Ocipinska. Developed by BuiltByGo. © 2022 Debrett’s. All Rights Reserved
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.