Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Very Soul of Tact

I need a break from telling you stories about his dogs. So I will tell you this about him, instead:

He had a—to him—puzzling reputation—to the extent that a person with so few acquaintances could be said to have a reputation at all—for being blunt. Refreshingly candid, if you liked him. Tactless or even insensitive, if you didn’t.

And he honestly didn’t know how that had happened.

People seemed to think that he blurted out whatever he happened to be thinking, without regard for what anyone else might think or feel about it. And that was so very far from the truth as to strike him as comical.

If other people thought that the things he said were the same things he thought, then perhaps the things he said were the same things they thought, but would not say. Then, were the things he thought but would not say monstrous, beyond-the-pale things? Because, believe me, he had plenty of unexpressed thoughts.

He edited most of what he said carefully, taking into account both the feelings of others and the impression he wished to make on others. He was, in his own opinion, most of the time, the very soul of tact. He was, in fact, often so tactful as to fail to make himself understood—a situation that any Nihon-jin trying to deal with America-jin will understand completely.

He was afraid that, if he told you too explicitly and directly what he meant, you might think, not only that he was rude, but that he thought you were stupid—why else so belabor a point? So he would often merely call a subject to your attention, hoping that you would draw the obvious conclusions. And when you didn’t, he tended to think you were stupid. But wouldn’t dream of saying so, of course.

It’s true that he was constitutionally capable of being quite deliberately blunt, rude, or even unequivocally offensive. But that, he maintained, was entirely different from tactlessness or insensitivity. He would maintain, in fact, that to effectively offend someone you wanted to offend, it was necessary to be as sensitive as possible to the intended victim’s feelings. How else would you know just where to stick the knife?

But even then, he took pride in not sticking the knife where it would do the most damage, but only where it would do the desired degree of damage. Again, it required sensitivity—even tact, if you bear in mind that, at bottom, tact means touch.

His father had been tactless and insensitive. His father had been the kind of guy who would thank you for a Christmas or birthday present and, in the same breath, tell you that he actually had no use for it. And make you feel like an asshole—as if you’d given mittens to someone who’d just lost both hands to frostbite.

But he, himself, was not tactless or insensitive. He was sure of it.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, he would make the mistake of getting comfortable with someone. If he liked you a lot, if he thought you liked him some, he might think that meant that you got him, that there was no need to be guarded around you. That you did not require tact because the two of you were somehow in sympathy with each other.

And then he might say something that would turn out—to his genuine astonishment—to be... well, unfortunate. And he would beat himself up later for being so stupid. And then, very likely, he would come to resent you for thinking him capable of intending the insult that you perceived. It was disheartening.

Whether it was to his credit or otherwise, he had the Peter-Pan-like quality of never seeming to learn from that particular mistake—he did it over and over and over again.

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