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Power Of Fitness Tact And Nicety In Business Words
There is an aspect of business words which has to do with social tact.
"The social tact of business words" sounds incongruous on first thought.
Business is largely force, to be sure; but a pleasing mien is often
powerful where force would fail. Training in social instinct and nicety
is more essential to a man's commercial interests than is visible on the
face of things. For instance:
Customer (entering store)--"I wish a tin of 'Cobra' boot polish,
Dealer--"Sorry, madam, we do not stock 'Cobra,' as we are seldom
asked for it. Do you wish polish for the class of shoes you are
To tell a customer abruptly, "We do not carry such-and-such a brand in
stock" has the effect of leading her immediately to turn to go. This is
not cordial, nor gracious, nor diplomatic; hence it is unbusiness-like.
Furthermore, to tell a customer that the brand she mentions is seldom
asked for is immediately to question her judgment. The dealer, in this
case, lost a chance to get attention on the part of his customer by
failing to infer, the moment he mentioned her shoes, that she wore a
good quality, had good taste, or common sense, or some such thing. His
reply could have been vastly improved by an exercise of the social
instinct. To answer her with some non-committal, tactful response would
open up cordial relations at once and afford the chance easily and
gracefully to lead the talk to another brand of polish.
Dealer--"Do you prefer 'Cobra' polish, madam? For high-grade shoes
such as you wear we find this brand more generally serviceable and
Telling expression, whether in business or in the drawing-room, depends
as much upon how one says a thing as upon what one says; as much upon
what one refrains from saying as upon what one does say.
What is the secret of the ability to put thought into tactful as well as
vivid words? Or is there a secret? There are those who invariably say
the right word in the right way. The question is: how have they found it
possible to do this; how have they learned; how have they brought the
faculty of expression to a perfected art? Or was this ability born in
them? Or, if there is a secret of proficiency, do the adroit managers
of words guard their secret carefully? And if so, why?
Piano artists, and violin artists, and canvas artists, and singing
artists, are uniformly proud of the persevering practise by which they
win success. Why should not ready writers and ready talkers be just as
proud of honest endeavor? Are they so vain of the praise of "natural
facility for expression" that they seldom acknowledge the steps of
progression by which they falteringly but tenaciously climb the ladder
of their attainment? A few great souls and masters of words have been
very honest about the ways and means by which they became skilful
phrase-builders. Robert Louis Stevenson, as perfect in his talk as in
his written expression, said of himself: "Tho considered an idler at
school, I was always busy on my own private ends, which was to learn to
use words. I kept two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.
As I walked my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words.
As I sat by the roadside a penny version book would be in my hand, to
note down the features of the scene. Thus I lived with words. And what I
thus wrote was written consciously for practise. I had vowed that I
would learn to write; it was a proficiency that tempted me, and I
practised to acquire it. I worked in other ways also; often accompanied
my walks with dialogs and often exercised myself in writing down
conversations from memory. This was excellent, no doubt; but there was
perhaps more profit, as there was certainly more effort, in my secret
labors at home.[B] That is the way to learn expression. It was so Keats
learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than
Keats's; it was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have
What, then, is the essential training necessary to the nice handling of
words? The idea is quite general that an extensive vocabulary alone
makes thought flow exactly off the tip of one's tongue or pen. But is
this true? One should have a command of words, to be sure; one should
know more descriptive words than "awful, fierce, fine, charming"--terms
used in an unthinking way by people who do not concern themselves with
specific adjectives. But to know how to use a vocabulary is of even more
importance than to possess one. Indeed, merely to possess a vocabulary
without the ability to weave the words into accurate, characterized
designs on an effective background is ruinous to the success of any
talker or writer. To employ an extensive vocabulary riotously is worse
than to own none.
When the poet Keats wrote those well-known lines,
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases,"
the first line stood originally:
"A thing of beauty is a constant joy."
The poet knew that this was the thought he wanted, but he felt that it
had not the simple, virile swing he coveted. And so the line remained
for many months, "A thing of beauty is a constant joy," in spite of the
author's many attempted phrasings to improve it. Finally the simple word
"forever" came to him, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Then he had
it, and he knew he had it--the essential note, the exact word. Certainly
the word "forever" was a part of Keats's vocabulary; he undoubtedly
knew this simple word. It was not the word, but adroitness in using it,
which made Keats's lines complete in their polished and natural
One of the world's worshiped piano virtuosi, who has quite as
intellectual a comprehension of words as of music, was asked by the
editor of a magazine to contribute biographical data and photographs for
an article on musical composers. The pianiste had published no
compositions, and the gracious answer swung readily into line: "If your
article is to deal exclusively with musical composers, I cannot be
included. I have never published any of my compositions because I feel
that they cannot add anything to my reputation as a pianiste, of which I
am----" Just here, as with Keats's line, vocabulary could not serve the
purpose. The pianiste could have said "of which I am proud." No, a
modest phrase must express honest pride--"my reputation as a pianiste
which I guard sedulously," or "defend zealously." No, this the exactness
and simplicity of true art rejected. Then came the simple, perfect
phrasing--"my reputation as a pianiste, of which I am somewhat jealous."
Unquestionably, as with Keats's word "forever," the word "jealous" was
perfectly familiar. It was not any one exceptional word which was
necessary, but a weaving of simple words--if I may be permitted the
expression. Here, in order to get the effect desired this master-mind
refrained from using a vocabulary. Words came readily enough; but the
tongue was in command of silence because pretentious words failed the
end. This perfection of expression is not a matter of vocabulary alone.
It is more than vocabulary; it is a grappling after the really subtle
and intellectual elements of the art of expression and persuasion.
Of what use all the delicately tinted tapestry threads in the world,
spread out before a tapestry-worker, if he does not possess the ability
to weave them into faultless designs, employing his colors sparingly
here, and lavishly there?
"One's tongue and pen should be in absolute command, whether for silence
or attack," says Stevenson again; and, more than on any quality of
force, business success depends upon that same nicety in the use of
words which selects the tactful expression, the modest and simple
phrase, in the drawing-room; the sort of nicety which is unobtrusive
exactness and delicacy; an artistry which in no way labels itself
skilful. But underneath all, the woof of the process is social
skill--that skill which is the ability to go back to unadorned first
principles with the dexterity of one who has acquired the power to do
the simple thing perfectly by having mastered the entire gamut of the
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