The art of tact

25 May 2021

Are we living in a tactless society, or is tact more relevant than ever where the loudest and most provocative voices seem to dominate? In the following interview, LMU sociologist Niklas Barth takes up these questions.

Polite conversation on social media? Probably an exception. Tact is also often lacking.

Dr. Niklas Barth is a lecturer at LMU’s Institute of Sociology, and until recently he was a Junior Researcher-in-Residence at the Center for Advanced Studies. He is now working on a theory of the sociology of tact. Here, he explains the difference between courtesy and tact – and why tact is more powerful than rigid ethical ideals.

You are studying the role of tact in everyday interactions. What motivated you as a sociologist to explore this specific mode of social behavior?

Niklas Barth: As a sociologist, I am interested in tact as a specific mode of communication. In essence, tact is a form of communication that gauges the appropriate ratio of familiarity to distance in social interaction. It becomes particularly relevant when accepted norms of communicative interactions – rules governing orders of precedence, for instance – begin to crumble.

This phenomenon can be seen during the transition from absolutism, which assigned individuals to particular “estates”, to a less rigidly stratified society. As the boundaries between the estates became more porous in 17th-century France, the problem of who was entitled to address whom in Parisian salons became acute. The customary rules of communication, the whole system of etiquette, could no longer be categorically applied, and tact emerged as a functional strategy for coping with the resulting ambiguities.

Thus, tact can be understood as a response to a crisis in social communication. What interests me in the context of social theory is the fact that tact is a mode of negotiating interactions which reflects how a society is structured.

What social significance does tact have today, and what does its current status tell us about social relations in today’s world?

Its significance can be judged in the context of social media, in which the limits that define civilized communication are being rapidly eroded. Social media make it possible to reach a far larger audience than anyone could ever convene in person. This brings highly heterogeneous contexts and cultural environments into communicative contact. Interactions are more immediate than in written forms of communication, and a whole range of interactions is possible. On a structural level, boundaries are systematically broken down. Such a situation raises the question of who is entitled to communicate with whom, and how the interaction is organized.

On social media tactlessness seems more pervasive than tact. Indeed, the logic of social media seems to stimulate an eagerness to provoke and violate rules. As the historical analogy I pointed out a moment ago suggests, such a breakdown of previously accepted norms generates a need to bring communication under control – and tact provides one way of doing that. In terms of social theory, discussion forums face the same problem as the French salons.

Do we need coaching in the art and use of tact online? Indeed, where does the notion come from in the first place?

That‘s an interesting question. The concept and workings of tact have always been propagated by specific media. We know a lot about the salons in 17th-century France, and how French moralists reflected on the patterns of interactions that took place in these settings. Their cogitations resulted in the formulation of certain strategies, which served as guides to the art of tactful communication. Notably, men often acquired these skills from women like the Marquise de Rambouillet, in whose salon men were taught the art of civilized, cultured and hence tactful behavior. Later there were books on the norms of polite conduct – such as Knigge’s, first published in Germany in 1788 – and today we have coaching sessions on intercultural and business communication. Sociology also made an important contribution to our knowledge of the subject of tact when it refined its program around 1900 to include the field of convivial interactions. This knowledge then percolated back into society. Similarly, the myriad of rules on netiquette and community standards on online forums are also reacting to the tactlessness that is perpetuated on the new media.

So one might say that people wish there were more tact?

The very existence of guides on netiquette demonstrates that, on social media, the boundaries that normally govern social communication are disintegrating and need to be renegotiated. In this context, tact is a functional mode of communication. To take another example, people now tend to ascribe to language a potent capacity for inflicting injury, as the debates about political correctness have clearly shown. These debates point to the emergence of a new sensitivity for the violation of boundaries, and a corresponding need to exercise restraint and respect these sensibilities.

How would you define tact yourself?

In interactions with others, the tactful person is willing to grant an interlocutor a certain degree of latitude with respect to that interlocutor’s own conception of how s/he wishes to be treated – that is Niklas Luhmann’s definition. Tact is a form of gratuitous consideration, a willingness to take both the interlocutor’s integrity and vulnerability into account, and allow him or her to play the desired role.

How tact is perceived depends on the specific communicational context. What comes across as due courtesy in relation to a stranger might be regarded as tactless or even embarrassing in the case of a friend.

In what contexts is tact still important?

When we talk about tact, we are usually thinking about situations associated with sociability, with disinterested interactions, with small talk at dinner parties and in bars, or with witty commentaries in the Comments section. But if one thinks about the term in the context of social theory, instances of tactful communication can be found in very different contexts – for example, in organizations, interactions with colleagues or the new boss, and in the sphere of diplomacy.

Teachers have their own forms of tact. For example, if they want to induce pupils to voluntarily adopt a certain type of behavior, such as taking part in a particular learning process, they tactfully mask the conflict between freedom and compulsion. My own research in the DFG project “On Dying with Dignity", which looks at ideals and strategies of care for the dying, has shown that distinctive forms of professional tact are employed in the relationship between doctor and patient.

What role does tact play in palliative care?

That communication with the dying should be as candid as possible is now a well-established concept. It emerged in the 1960’s with the advent of hospices, and came to mean that a ‘good’ death is one that is openly referred to and discussed. It originated in critiques of how people died in hospitals, which culminated in the assertion that terminally ill patients were being denied knowledge of their true diagnosis – and were thus deprived of a ‘dignified’ death.

This debate resulted in the ideal of direct communication, which has since been institutionalized in hospices and on palliative-care wards. In our DFG project, we have interviewed terminally ill patients, their families, medical personnel, palliative nurses and other professionals directly involved in caring for the dying.

These conversations have shown that speaking frankly about death does not come naturally, and it inevitably comes up against certain specific constraints in practice. Often, it simply demands too much of all protagonists. This finding suggests that, just as the wasting body needs special care, so too does communication with the dying. Indeed, Helmuth Plessner once described tact as a form of “health maintenance” (Hygiene des Takts), because it can serve to immunize us against the difficulties inherent in such situations.

Dr. Niklas Barth is working on a theory of the sociology of tact. | © LMU

And how does tact come into play here?

Physicians and medical personnel are inevitably confronted with the need to confront the subject of death when deciding on an optimal course of therapy. It is their responsibility to find ways to break the bad news. But they have also learnt how to conceal what they know if they judge the moment to be inopportune, to wait for the appropriate time, and to create an atmosphere in which tactful communication of the inevitable is possible.

Nursing staff often develop a more casual form of communication with patients on their deathbeds. They do not have to bear the burden of talking about death as such, because their task is to care for the dying in all their helplessness and loneliness. Here, one can observe that none of those involved succeed in fully realizing the open form of communication that final farewells ideally deserve. They develop highly situation-dependent strategies for dealing with familiarity and distance, knowing and not knowing, communication of the truth or recourse to well-meaning deceptions, and overlooking the discordance between perception and communication – all with a view to organizing an “easeful” death for each of the patients in their care.

In many interviews, palliative nurses report that, at the bedside, they can often recognize when their patients have become aware that they are dying. But they also say that such patients often indicate by means of an incidental gesture or facial expression that they don’t want to talk about it and the nurses themselves then tactfully avoid the subject. Tactful communication can cast a veil over certain things that might be too upsetting. That’s something we’re well acquainted with in the sociology of the professions. Very different types of professional characters develop a sensitive situational instinct for when it’s time to dispense with the inflexible dictates of ethical ideals – in this case, the ideal of speaking openly – and simply play it by ear. As Clemens Albrecht has shown, that can be understood as a form of professional “socioprudence”, the ability to behave in a socially intelligent way.

That requires an empathetic personality, surely?

Empathy can be understood as an important strategy in the repertoire of the tactful, because tactful communication is aware of role expectations, anticipates unexpressed needs, and takes both into account in choosing how best to address the situation.

We live in an age of rampant digitalization, and efforts are now underway to incorporate artificial intelligence and robots even into nursing care. Can robots be taught to be tactful?

That question actually goes to the heart of the matter. By definition, tact is not rule bound, which in turn suggests that it cannot be programmed. Tact is a matter of a situation-dependent and intuitive adroitness. Its very essence is its disrespect for rules. Attempts to redefine it in terms of pre-set instructions that describe how it functions put tact at risk of degenerating into strategy and pretense, which can then be perceived as self-serving.

In fact, the rejection of calculation was one aspect of the bourgeois critique of tact. For these critics, tact was an amalgam of insincerity, flattery and dissimulation intended to camouflage self-interest. As soon as my interlocutor suspects that I’m actually pursuing a selfish goal, playing a game, putting on an act, my efforts are longer perceived as tactful.

So whether we are willing to attribute a sense of tact to nursing robots will depend on whether they can be programmed in such a way that they are perceived to possess some degree of situation-specific freedom of choice.

So tact will remain a distinctively human attribute?
That’s not an easy question to answer. In anthropological studies published in the 20th century, one can find discussions of whether the ability to distance oneself from one’s own convictions and concerns is a genuinely human characteristic. Yet this capacity is itself an important component of tact.

From a sociological point of view, I would argue that tact primarily pertains to the sphere of communication – indeed, that’s one of its most important aspects. If one is willing to acknowledge that communication allows for a wide range of degrees of freedom, i.e. alternative courses of action, it becomes possible to attribute to other animals, or indeed robots, the capacity to display tact in choosing between the available options.

So what is your verdict? Has society become less tactful in recent decades, as the tone of so many exchanges on social media would seem to suggest?

Yes and no. Social interaction is now less likely to lead to sociability than it used to be. It has become systematically independent of forms of coordinated action, and hence has little room for tact. But it all depends on where you look. If one focuses on social media, a demonstrative disdain for tact dominates the scene.

If on the other hand, one considers other contexts, one can still find diverse forms of tact. Professional contexts in particular still foster a highly differentiated sense for how one should behave in certain situations. I would argue that a significant measure of tactful communication now takes place under the radar, as it were. That is one of tact’s most beguiling features: When it’s effective, nobody notices.

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