May 7, 2008

On Lacking Tact

2008 1513 page17 capou know how it goes: You meet someone at church, and he remembers you from somewhere but isn’t sure where. You, however, are baffled. The two of you spend a few minutes trading information like bits of bread. Finally, you solve the mystery. Ah ha! So that was you! Then you chat amicably.
Unless, of course, you’re me. If you’re me, you keep on talking, until eventually you say something you’ll regret.
The two of us hadn’t met before, it turned out, but he was a friend of my sister and had spent a weekend at our house. I was in South Korea at the time, but I had heard about his visit. “You’re infamous,” I said, pleased to finally link a face to a familiar story.
He looked puzzled.
A more astute conversationalist would have paused here and not proceeded. I was not so astute. I launched into a narrative I found amusing, not stopping to consider how he might feel about it. “You went to the airport with my family, remember? While they were taking the bags in, you stayed with the car to move it if necessary—you never even saw the guy writing the ticket.”
It turned out, he did not remember, at least not immediately. As the memory slowly washed over him, he looked confused, uncomfortable. Who would bring up that kind of a story?
Who indeed!
2008 1513 page17I remember a middle school concert. After the program, there was a table set up with punch and dessert. “Steer clear of the cookies,” I advised a friend.
“Which ones?” she asked.
I pointed to a half-eaten cookie on my plate. “These. They’re horrible. They taste like soap.”
“My mom made those,” my friend said.
Oh no.
I lack tact. Or to put it another way, I reliably say the wrong thing at the wrong time. My family expects it: “What did you say this time?” they will ask, alternating between amusement and horror.
Over the years I’ve become resigned to sticking my foot in my mouth. I’ve accepted it as one of my quirks—like the way I flip through magazines back to front, or the way I enjoy a hearty peanut butter and tomato sandwich.
It was the parking ticket faux pas that got me thinking. It’s one thing to embarrass myself; it’s quite another to make someone else feel lousy.
In the children’s book Anne of Avonlea, the title character Anne has a row with her neighbor, Mr. Harrison. He has been twitting her about having red hair, a topic about which she is sensitive. Eventually he apologizes—sort of.
“You must excuse me, Anne. I’ve got a habit of being outspoken and folks mustn’t mind it.”
“But they can’t help minding it. And I don’t think it’s any help that it’s your habit. What would you think of a person who went about sticking pins and needles into people and saying, ‘Excuse me, you mustn’t mind it . . . it’s just a habit I’ve got.’ You’d think he was crazy, wouldn’t you.”1
Anne might be fictional, but she makes a solid point. I’m responsible for my words and for the effects of my words. Of course, one doesn’t have to read L. M. Montgomery to figure that out.
Proverbs is filled with pithy advice for the tactless: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”2 “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly.”3 “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.”4
For every text in Proverbs that grapples with foolish speech, there also seems to be one about disingenuous words. “The Lord detests lying lips,” Proverbs 12:22 warns. If I were to summarize Proverbs’ counsel for the tactless, it would be this: Be judicious, but don’t be phony.
In the coming weeks (hopefully years), I want to think more before blurting out my opinions and my stories. I also want to give others the benefit of 
the doubt when they say something obliviously insulting. I want to consider their heart and not their words. I hope they will do the same for me.
1L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea (Bantam Books), 
p. 68.
2Prov. 10:19.
3Prov. 12:23.
4Prov. 17:27.
Sari Fordham is an assistant professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She teaches in the Department of English and Communication.