Letter vii. Tact --Unobtrusiveness.
My Dear Daughter: -- In one of my letters to you, I said that there were certain excellent manuals which contained important general and special directions concerning the forms and manners or etiquette of polite society, and that all young people should study and profit by some standard works of this kind. But there are a great many things pertaining to the conduct of life, that go to make up character and affect the impression we make upon those around us, which are not set down in books and cannot be imparted by set forms and rules. For instance, one of the most desirable possessions for any person, young or old, is tact -- a power of moving on through life without constantly coming into collision with people and things and opinions. And yet no rules were ever laid down by which anyone can learn to acquire tact. It is rather the natural result of a disposition to make people with whom we are associated comfortable and happy, since in order to do this we must constantly guard against arousing antagonisms or wounding the susceptibilities of those around us.

Now, to illustrate by some instances of lack of tact: A lady guest at a table where broiled ham was the meat provided, declined to take any, and then added, "I don't think pork is fit food for any human stomach." Of course an embarrassment fell upon host and hostess and all the company, and the rest of the meal-time was passed in an ineffectual endeavor to restore conversation to a harmonious basis. What caused this lady to make such a remark? Simply lack of tact, which means that she had not the fine sensitiveness that would prevent her from wounding the feelings of her friends. She had no delicacy of perception as to the reflection she cast upon her host and hostess by so brusquely condemning something to which they were habituated. This is one instance of lack of tact, but here is another of different character: A company of educated people sat down at table together, and the conversation happened to turn on the question of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. One lady, who was a recent college graduate and supposed to be possessed of an unusual degree of culture, said in a most positive manner: "I think the advocates of the theory that some one other than Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, simply show their ignorance and shallowness." An uncomfortable pause fell upon, the company, for two of the best informed people present were entirely convinced that some one other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. It was simply lack of tact that betrayed this lady into a positiveness and obtrusiveness of statement that made others uncomfortable and aroused their antagonism. Here is still another instance: One lady was introduced to another lady who was the wife of a gentleman much older than herself. After catching the name the lady said: "Are you the wife of old Mr. C -- -- ?" Of course everybody around who had any sensibility was pained and embarrassed by such a blunt, brusque question. Yet the lady who displayed this want of tact was a college graduate and the principal teacher in an important school.

Now, no rule or rules will ever prevent anyone from doing and saying things which show lack of tact. Nothing will do it but the cultivation of a spirit of sympathy which will enable one to realize how other people feel when their opinions and peculiarities or circumstances are so bluntly antagonized or alluded to. I know an excellent and high-minded lady, of superior intellectual culture, who often complains that she has few friends. She says that she longs for the affection and esteem of her friends, yet, as she expresses it, she has "no personal magnetism." I was once present in a literary society of which this lady, Mrs. A., was a member. Another member, Mrs. B., made a statement about a matter under discussion in the society, when Mrs. A. arose and said, bluntly: "That is not true." Everybody was astonished, and listened almost indignantly while Mrs. A. went on to show that Mrs. B. had simply been misinformed and was mistaken. It would have been entirely easy and proper for Mrs. A. to ask permission to correct a misapprehension on the part of Mrs. B., and she could have done it in such a way as would have wounded nobody's feelings. Mrs. A., while she complains that she has few friends, frequently asserts that she believes in saying just what she thinks. This is all well enough, but she says it with so little tact as to constantly wound the feelings and antagonize the opinions of everyone around her.

Tact is as important in manners as in speech. The word is closely allied to the word touch, and a person who has good tact is really one who can touch people gently, carefully, kindly, in all the relations of life. In the animal creation no creature has more perfect tact than a well-bred kindly-treated household cat. You may have seen one of these enter a room where perhaps a circle of people were seated around a stove or open fire. Puss wants her warm place in front of the fire or stove, but she does not brusquely and rudely push her way there. No. She glides gently, purringly around the circle, rubs caressingly against this one and that, as though gently saying, "By your leave"; and when finally she reaches the desired spot, she lays herself down so gracefully and quietly and curls herself up so deftly that to witness the act really affords pleasure to the observer. A creature of less tact and grace would only appear obtrusive and offend and antagonize the company, and probably rightfully receive reproof and be ejected from the room.

And so I would wish to see you and all young people cultivate tact; study how to speak and act so as to touch gently all with whom you are associated. Behind the best tact lies the wish to be kind and to make people comfortable and happy, to avoid wounding and irritating; and so it is true that the basis of true tact is, after all, the moral sentiment.

The young person who would cultivate tact in speech and manners will carefully guard against obtrusiveness. This is a defect in the manners of so many people, both young and old, and includes such a multitude of things, that it is worth while to particularize a little upon it. Quietness, repose, order, are distinguishing marks of cultivated social life everywhere, and to people who are habituated to these conditions of life it is painful to have incongruous or inappropriate acts or sounds thrust upon their attention. Here is a generalization that explains the reason why many things, harmless in themselves are unpleasant to and offend the taste of cultivated people. No really cultivated young girl will, for instance, open and play upon a piano in a hotel parlor or any other parlor at inappropriate times or when it is occupied by strangers. She will never perform in public any of the duties of the toilet, such as cleaning her nails or using a tooth-pick. She will not eat peanuts or fruit or candy, or chew gum, in public places. In fact, I cannot imagine a really refined young lady chewing gum even in the privacy of her own room, so offensive is it to good taste. She will not descant upon bodily ailments in the drawing-room or at the table. She will not rush noisily up and down stairs or through the house, clashing doors and startling everyone with unpleasant noises. She will not interrupt people who are conversing, to ask an irrelevant question or one pertaining to her own affairs. She will not slap an acquaintance familiarly on the shoulder, or make special displays of affection or intimacy before people. She will if possible suppress the sudden sneeze, and use every effort to quiet a cough. She will not go uninvited into the private room of anyone, nor into the kitchen of her hostess where she is a visitor. All such things really inflict pain upon sensitive people; they offend because they obtrude; and all similar actions and obtrusiveness are to be carefully avoided by everyone who desires to acquire a true and genuine culture of action, speech, and manners. It is well worth your while to think earnestly and often upon these things; to learn to understand why so many thoughtless actions on the part of young people are set down to a general lack of cultivation. All such obtrusiveness must be done away with before we shall be able to realize the prayer of David, "that our daughters may be like corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace."

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