Tact Is the Ability To Describe Others As They See Themselves

Mary Pettibone Poole? Abraham Lincoln? Aldous Huxley? Eleanor Chaffee? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The ability to perceive others as they see themselves is an enormously helpful guide for smooth and productive interactions. Here is a pertinent adage:

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, quotation compiler Mary Pettibone Poole, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln employed this saying. Mary Pettibone Poole did record this saying in 1938, but it was already circulating.

The first match located by QI appeared in March 1925 in the “Washburn Review” of Topeka, Kansas which acknowledged another periodical: 1

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves, says the Tulsa University Collegian.

“The Collegian” was (and remains) the newspaper of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. No attribution was provided. Thus, based on current information the creator was anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1925 the saying together with the same acknowledgement appeared in “College Life” of Emporia, Kansas. 2

In 1931 the saying without an attribution or acknowledgement appeared in “The Davenport Democrat” of Iowa. 3

In 1938 Mary Pettibone Poole published the compilation “A Glass Eye at a Keyhole” which included the saying without attribution: 4

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.

In 1946 a columnist in the “Lubbock Evening Journal” of Texas printed an instance. The columnist stated that a local accountant named Houston Boyd had supplied the saying, and he credited Abraham Lincoln who had died many years earlier in 1865: 5

Mr. Boyd, by the way, passed on to us a statement of Abraham Lincoln’s which will do to repeat and repeat and repeat.

Asked for a definition of “tact,” the then President replied: “I guess you might call it the ability to describe others as they see themselves.”

In 1949 “The Spokesman-Review” of Spokane, Washington printed an instance attributed to Lincoln within an advertisement encouraging the use of classified ads: 6

Quoteworthy

Abraham Lincoln was once asked to give his definition of tact. “Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “I guess you might call it the ability to describe others as they see themselves!” A good answer is usually the answer you want to hear. And that’s the kind of answer you can expect to get from a Want Ad.

In 1954 English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley published “The Doors of Perception”, and he included a thematically related statement: 7

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.

In 1967 “The Modern Handbook of Humor” compiled by Ralph L. Woods contained another attribution for the saying: 8

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.
—Eleanor Chaffee

In 1992 “The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women” credited Poole: 9

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.
Mary Pettibone Poole, A Glass Eye at a Keyhole (1938)

In 1996 “Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln” expressed skepticism regarding the Lincoln attribution: 10

For more than a century, undocumented quotations have been attaching themselves to Lincoln and gaining currency through repetition. Many of them are undoubtedly spurious. There appears to be no credible evidence, for example, that he ever said: “Tact [is] the ability to describe others as they see themselves”; or “No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar”…

In conclusion, this saying began to circulate by 1925. It first appeared in the newspaper of the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The creators identity remains unknown. Mary Pettibone Poole included the saying in her 1938 compilation. The ascription to Abraham Lincoln is spurious.

Image Notes: Public domain painting titled “The Mirror of Venus” by Edward Burne-Jones circa 1870 to 1875. Image has been resized and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1925 March 25, Washburn Review, Inter-Collegiate, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1925 April 13, College Life, In Other Schools, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Emporia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1931 November 15, The Davenport Democrat, Homade Hooch by Bob Feeney, Quote Page 27, Column 4, Davenport, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1938, A Glass Eye at a Keyhole by Mary Pettibone Poole, Section: Made in Manhattan, Quote Page 7, Published by Dorrance and Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  5. 1946 June 12, Lubbock Evening Journal, The Plainsman Says, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Lubbock, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1949 March 31, The Spokesman-Review, Quoteworthy, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Spokane, Washington. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1960, The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell by Aldous Huxley, Section: The Doors of Perception (Copyright 1954), Quote Page 8, Chatto & Windus, London. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1967, The Modern Handbook of Humor, Compiled by Ralph L. Woods (Ralph Louis Woods), Section: Quips from Great, Near Great, and Anonymous, Quote Page 492,. Column 1, The McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1992 Copyright, The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, Compiled by Rosalie Maggio, Topic: Tact, Quote Page 315, Column 1, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1996, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Section: Introduction, Quote Page l (50 roman numeral), Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. (Verified on paper)