Tact is not something entirely inherent, while I do believe there are genetic components and emotional intellect quotients that make it a part of one's being.
It is a learned response, a form of politeness that can be honed in early childhood and is highly dependent on parental teachings and positive environs.
One of my earliest memories involves a cringeworthy moment for my mother, when I turned to a tall burly man in a Bronx elevator and said "You shouldn't smoke, it's bad for you." While it is likely true, it's not something I would now say to a perfect stranger. I remember my mother's anxiously polite response (as well as the man's), the jaw-splitting smiles, the chirpy laughter, her trying to cover up for the brash 4-year-old that I was.
... I was cute enough to get away with it then...
At 37, I've noticed that some of my acquaintances choose words carefully while others seem to have what is known as "no filter." It's not so cute today. The things you wouldn't say -- very often, someone else will.
When I was pregnant three years ago, a neighbor approached me at the community recreation center and loudly proclaimed "You're gonna bust right out of that T-shirt. You sure you should be that big for just five months pregnant?" When I informed her I was actually carrying twins, she scolded me repeatedly for being too small.
While I contemplated launching a maternity line with witty comebacks (e.g., "MYOB: Mind Your Own Belly" and "Hands off!"), I saw how free people were to say things with no foresight about what might be hurtful and highly annoying.
Words that could potentially put Kleenex out of business (if you've ever been pregnant, I know that you're following) are often the result of cranial-overload-induced verbal diarrhea.
On the other hand, it is not always possible to predict what might be hurtful to others. That which one person hears as a teasing tune of a flute may arrive as the clash of cymbals in the recipient's ears.
A few years ago, I upset a friend by sharing a dream that I had about her. I had no idea she was desperately trying to get pregnant and had just suffered a miscarriage when I informed her that I had a dream she was pregnant. We've all upset somebody by saying something that we thought nothing of, but I would say that if you have a doubt in your mind (or even an inkling of one), take out that filter and try to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Let your mind do the thinking before your mouth does the talking.
For more by Shira Hirschman Weiss, click here.
For more on mindfulness, click here.