In 1996, Jeff Bigler was trying to help a friend at MIT better understand her co-workers and why she and they weren't communicating well. The analogy he presented worked for her and Jeff posted it to the Web.
All people have a "tact filter", which applies tact in one direction to everything that passes through it. Most "normal people" have the tact filter positioned to apply tact in the outgoing direction. Thus whatever normal people say gets the appropriate amount of tact applied to it before they say it. ...
"Nerds," on the other hand, have their tact filter positioned to apply tact in the incoming direction. Thus, whatever anyone says to them gets the appropriate amount of tact added when they hear it. ...
(from Tact Filters, Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Jeff Bigler.)
Ten years later, the "Tact Filter" theory has stood the test of time. Jeff still gets "quite a bit of fan mail" about it and the Tact Filter has been mentioned in many other sites, most recently on 43Folders where I first heard about it.
I think the theory works well to explain a lot of personal interactions. Discovering it gave me one of those AhHa! moments. (I'm one of Jeff Bigler's "nerds" by the way. :-)
However, there's one part of Jeff's theory that I don't agree with.
Jeff suggests that the reason for someone's tact filter placement has to do with things your parents told you when you were a child:
...when nerds were growing up, they continually got picked on, and their parents continually drilled into their heads statements like, "They're just saying those mean things because they're jealous. They don't really mean it."
I don't believe that. I don't think hearing your mother say "don't worry, they don't mean it" would cause someone to get impatient with people when they DO say something "tactful" (although, you might decide they don't mean that either. :-) I think people are born with their tact filters firmly in place.
Jeff is certainly accurate when he says:
..when normal people talk to nerds, the nerds often get frustrated because the normal people seem to be dodging the real issues and not saying what they really mean.
Here's a real-life example:
I recently received email from someone working on a software development project. I had submitted a handful of enhancement requests through the bug reporting system. He wrote to tell me why he had closed the bugs. Apparently, I hadn't used the proper procedure and, therefore, my requests were probably not going to get much traction.
There, now, I said what needed to be said in one sentence. But he didn't. He spent three introductory paragraphs beating around the bush before he got to the point. At least, that's the way I saw things:
When I write to you then it is because I find you to be an important contributor and I respect you for that. I find that people who report bugs and provide feedback are as important as programmers. ...
Uhuh. And your point is?
This was paragraph #1. The note went on like this for two more paragraphs before my corespondent finally said something concrete, i.e. there's a special process for filing enhancement requests, it's not the bug-reporting system, and you should use it.
Now, someone reading this might say, "But he was only being polite. He wanted to be helpful. He didn't want to hurt your feelings."
My response is "What 'feelings'? We're not discussing feelings. We're talking about facts."
Techies, scientists, engineers, hackers -- Jeff Bigler's "nerds" -- deal in facts. A fact isn't going to hurt my feelings. A fact just "is".
Engineers are always honest in matters of technology and human relationships. That's why it's a good idea to keep engineers away from customers, romantic interests, and other people who can't handle the truth.
(excerpt: Engineers Explained)
It's not simply a case of whether and where the "tact filter" is applied. It's also a question of how much "tact" we think is necessary. What is "the appropriate amount of tact"? We "nerds" just naturally lean toward "blunt".
That's probably what leads us to technological fields of endeavor. After all, you don't have to be polite and tactful with a computer. You simply tell it what you want it to do.