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


Interruption In Conversation The Talk Of Host And Hostess At Dinner facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail