It’s time we have an honest discussion about why you people don’t know how to fucking behave. Let’s talk about tact: a noble virtue, a lost virtue, a very necessary virtue. Long gone, it seems, are the days when tact was common, or in which people behaved with thoughtfulness, discretion, and sensitivity. Long gone is the era wherein people generally minded their own goddamn business.
Our transformation into a society of tactless goons likely has a number of origins, but I’ll focus on two. The first is the general chill-ification of society. Everything is casual and cool and totally fine so just go with it, OK? Established social norms don’t need to exist over Gchat.
But, while wearing sweatpants all the time is, indeed, very comfortable, perhaps we’ve forgotten that not everything can just be tossed in and set to wash on cold. Some things are like silk—more delicate. You might even have to send these things out to a professional. They require some presence of mind and just a little extra thinking. Silk, unlike cotton, has some boundaries.
Easily, however, the most likely culprit for our inability to act like we’ve got some damn sense is our general dependence on social media for information dissemination and the consequent idolization of transparency, which is often confused for “realness.” To be clear, I’m all for honesty and being as real as possible, but there is such a thing as being too real. We exist in a time where over-sharing is not just the norm, but is often expected, defended, and celebrated.
Because of our desire for celebrities to be open and relatable, we have created an entertainment climate in which reality television stars are dominant, who are only “stars” because of their willingness to air their personal business, issues and insecurities on national television. Hell, the Kardashians built an empire on telling the world all their business (and then subsequently lying about it). In the premiere episode of this season of the Real Housewives of Orange County, cast member Shannon Beador revealed that she and her husband were attending couples therapy because months ago he had an affair, and tabloids and loyal Twitter followers praised her for her honesty and being so open about her marital struggles. However, the smarter reaction is: Do we really need to know this? Is this the best or only storyline they could come up with? Do your children need to have this information aired on national television? Is this all just a bit too real?
On a more relatable level, we’ve all seen Facebook posts or tweets that we wish we hadn’t. Couples who detail every step of a pregnancy despite the fact that if something were to go wrong, those posts would be devastating and incredibly uncomfortable. People who sustain injuries and feel it necessary to post shots of their gruesome legs or selfies following surgeries.
This behavior has lulled us into the false sense that every human is an open book, a life story that’s ready be shared and often over-willing to do so. This clouds our ability to realize when we’re prying into someone’s personal life. What then follows is that questions that should not be asked are asked, and information that should not be shared is shared without thinking. The erosion of tact has been slow but almost total.
Consider this: If something wasn’t relayed to you—an uninvolved party—you probably weren’t told for a reason. Maybe there are safety or legal ramifications, or someone wants to have the whole picture in front of them before they go about announcing anything. Or, more simply, you just ain’t in the circle. Some things are shared on a need-to-know basis and sorry, you don’t need to know. And when you don’t need to know, poking into somebody else’s business and asking invasive questions makes you look like a tactless asshole.
That’s the funny thing about necessity: When you’re actually needed, people tend to tell you.
The worst is when a lack of tact is disguised under a veil of concern. Oh, I’m just asking all these nosy-ass questions because I’m concerned. If you really cared, you would take a step back, think outside of yourself for a minute and consider whether or not you’re actually being helpful. Will extracting this information help you make this person’s life easier, or are you just being nosy? Are you expressing condolences for an incident that wasn’t even directly relayed to you because you’re truly concerned or because you want to look like a nice person? Is this a story that is truly the concern of many or is that just what you happen to believe?
Tact is only necessary around difficult situations—the silk, not the sweatpants, of our world. Tact is about consideration and not making stressful circumstances any worse. It’s about not putting someone in an uncomfortable position because you want to know something. It’s about trusting that you have exactly the amount of information that those involved want you to have, and knowing that pushing for anything more is selfish and nosy. Tact, because it mostly requires abstention, is the rare virtue that doesn’t even require you to be a good person. All tact asks of you is not to be actively bad, and to know your place—where it is and where it absolutely is not.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby