I’m not sure how many people remember the first word they looked up in the dictionary. When I was five, my father made me find the word tact in the dictionary shortly after I got into an argument with my sister, and he made me recite it a few times until I internalized it. Recalling it from memory, tact is a keen sense of what to do or what to say to keep good relations with others or to avoid offense. This is pretty close to the one in Merriam-Webster, which was probably the dictionary we used.
My parents would often get wine as a gift from friends. Not wanting to offend people for such generosity, my parents would thank these friends for their gift and offer it to a coworker the next day. When I go to a bar with friends, I sometimes order a Roy Rogers instead of just getting water to make it less obvious that I don’t drink.
The art of avoiding offense is a difficult one. When someone holds a point of view that comes into contradiction with our own, there is a balance that must be struck between staying true to one’s convictions and respecting those of another.
During my freshman year in college, my roommate’s father told us the following story.
I was in Kyoto for a thyroid convention and thought it would be a great idea if the talks were videotaped, so attendees could view them later.
When I brought up my idea with one of the conference organizers, he smiled, shook my hand, and said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s discuss it later.” I was happy my idea was met with such respect.
The next day was an opportunity to go sightseeing, so we ended up taking a tour of Kyoto. The tour was fun, but I was slightly annoyed when the tour guide said, “The people of Kyoto are extremely polite.” It sounded a little cliche.
His next comment caught my attention, though. “When a man from Kyoto disagrees with you, he will smile, shake your hand, and say, ‘That’s a great idea. Let’s discuss it later.'”
We heard this story while eating dinner at a steakhouse, but that’s a story for another day.