Directness vs. tact

There was a recent Radiolab episode called “What’s Left When You’re Right?” in which two friends explore their opposite personalities. One friend, Soo, is radically direct, and the other friend, Lulu, is friendly and placating. When Soo intervenes with a violent storyteller they meet on a bike trip, Lulu admires Soo’s courage, saying, “She just knows how to stand up for things. She has so much hope... She is enraged by anyone who doesn’t live up to their potential. She has a true hope that, actually, we’re capable of better.” But Soo admits, “That’s a really utopian reading of such a crappy part of my personality… It’s alienating to me. Nobody wants to be around that person.” Tact sustains a relationship, Soo says, recalling an angry confrontation with her roommates that caused her to move out.

The truth falls somewhere in the middle; there are times when direct communication is required, there are times when tactful communication is required, and there are many, many times when direct communication and tactful communication overlap. You need both to communicate effectively.

When to practice tact:

1. When it will build team morale
Athletes never agree 100% with their team captains, but that doesn’t give the wide receiver free reign to point out the quarterback’s failures of leadership during the pre-game pep talk.
2. When you are negotiating a compromise
As seen on House Hunters, everyone has a list of “must-haves” and a list of “nice-to-haves.” Buyers always have to give up a few “nice-to-haves” in order to get what they really want.
3. When you don't have anything nice to say
It’s good to have a filter between your brain and your words. Thought of an insulting joke about your best friend? Saying it is asking for a fight.
4. When you’re going against the consensus
Nonviolent protests are successful because the media can’t paint the protestors as “the bad guy.” If you’re going against a group consensus, keeping a clean image can sometimes prevent you from being marginalized as a troublemaker.

Why you should get straight to the point:

1. Other people can’t read your mind
My whole family called me “Paigerino” until I finally got the guts to say I hated that nickname when I was twelve. They had no idea I didn’t like it.
2. Hedging appears weak
In a job interview, you need to communicate your accomplishments directly (“I wrote the proposal that won the award.”), rather than apologetically (“I helped my team write the proposal that won the award.”). The hiring manager is hiring you, not your team!
3. Asking for a favor (when it’s not a favor!) is condescending
On an airplane, you are federally required to comply with all crewmember instructions. It would be rude for a flight attendant to ask, “Would you mind doing me a favor and putting that seat back up?” since he’s actually ordering you to do it. (Closely related tip: it’s rude to insult someone and follow with, “Bless your heart!” or “No offense!”) (Closely related tip #2: don’t use “just” in an email. “I’m just writing to check in,” is a lot more annoying than, “I’m writing to check in.”)
4. Sometimes, it’s an emergency

Different communication styles are most effective in different situations. The middle way is to show respect and consideration in every interaction.


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