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Discretion in Words and Actions

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

A very important topic is addressed in chapter 11 of the Small Manual of Civility, the need for discretion in day-to-day life. It is especially important for us today, because it has become a sign of the bold, successful man to speak his mind, or to discover and reveal the faults of others to help one get ahead. This is not only uncivil behavior, but it is not a Catholic way to act.

Discretion is the tact and politeness that is learned at home from the earliest age. If a child hears his parents constantly backbiting and finding fault with others – even good friends and close relatives, he will learn to do the same. If he hears his mother or father discussing his shortcomings or faults with others, he will see no reason to be discreet about their defects or the family private matters. Indiscretion is a kind of vicious circle – one indiscreet act provokes and leads to another. Soon, the harmony and kindness of life – inside the family, the community, and society in general – is broken and destroyed.

The discreet man is master of himself, and admired by all. The indiscreet man follows his more base instincts, and is disdained by all.

Let us know how to be discreet in our conversation, following our Manual of Civility.
Discretion, the daughter of humility and prudence, is one of the most beautiful adornments of the virtue of charity.

It essentially consists in that elementary and indispensable honesty that moves the man to guard his tongue with regard to his neighbor’s business. The discreet man will cover a defect or fault of another. He will cast a protecting shadow over the mistakes of others.

Discretion knows how to keep a secret; to cloak a confidential matter in a prudent silence; to close the ears to insidious conversations generated by personal enmities. In short, a man should exercise discretion in all the circumstances of daily life.

When reserve is necessary

Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary

Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary,
a model of discretion
At a private luncheon that took place some time ago in São Paulo, five bureaucrats and a General were present. Several years before, the latter was the leader of a political party that lost an important election in the city. The bureaucrats, intelligent, curious and given to intrigues, tried to steer the General to give his personal opinions about his colleagues in the election. The General quickly realized their game. He paid sincere homage several times to the talent, abnegation and merit of the other leaders. He let all the responsibility for the defeat fall upon himself. He said nothing, implied nothing that could even slightly tarnish the names of the other politicians.

Here is a magnificent example of discretion. Certainly, the General could have been tempted to distribute the blame for the failure to win the election among the various party leaders. But he did not do so.

Now, for some examples of persons who lack discretion:
  • During a visit, he divulges painful or embarrassing facts about others who are still living or whose memory is still present to those in the party;

  • He reveals an event that the family or individual would like to cover or is not yet ready to make public;

  • He insists upon being introduced even when he is told that the master of the house is busy or is not in;

  • He makes a visit or phone call during hours that are inopportune;

  • He sneaks imprudent looks at the letters, packages or private objects of other persons in their presence or absence.
More examples of indiscretion

If you are speaking to a person and another person arrives who would also like to speak to him, it would be indiscreet not to cut your conversation short so that he can attend to the second person.

Discretion consists in respecting the time and liberty of action of your neighbor. It is indiscreet to take up the time of others with small talk and matters, thereby disturbing their work and ordinary occupations and activities.

It would be indiscreet and even impertinent for someone visiting the home of another to dispose himself freely – whether invited or not – to the books, objects and furniture, removing them from their ordinary place, to give orders to the maids, to change the family schedule to follow his convenience, in short, to arrogate to himself the title of independent lord.

Intimate family matters are sacred

Indiscrete servants peeping through a keyhole

Do not intrude on your neighbor's private life
If hospitality is sacred, so also is what the guest saw, observed, noted, came upon unexpectedly with regard to the persons and things during his visit at a family home. There is almost nothing so odious in a man as to violate the secrets of a family in whose home he was welcomed and received good treatment. What can be more despicable than a person who, after enjoying hospitality and exhibiting mutual friendship and good-faith, spreads to the four winds the less edifying things he saw in the home?

The person who consciously or unconsciously trumpets private matters of others is odious to God as well as men. Whoever finds an object of value, a document or a letter in a public place is obliged to return it to its owner, because the fact of finding it does not confer the right of property. Thus also, whoever by chance or artifice, comes upon some private matter of one’s neighbor, does not have the right to divulge it. Revealing such defects or shortcomings would be a graver fault if it would result in damaging a person’s authority or of dishonoring his good name.

Our neighbor has the right to his good name, his fame. To detract from it is to commit an act of defamation, which etymologically means to attempt against someone’s fame. It is bad action before God and men.

The mischief caused by indiscreet words

A word of Eve in response to the serpent – when she should not have replied to him – was the cause of the ruin of the whole humankind.

A word that the daughters of Israel said in praise of David, preferring him to Saul, was the cause of a great revolution in that monarchy, forcing David to become a fugitive and be persecuted for many years.

A word that escaped from Henry II, King of England, caused four of his vassals to impiously murder the Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket, inside his own church.

With a thoughtless word, a secret is divulged; by laying bare that secret, a kingdom can be lost.

How many entire families could never wash away a stain in society caused by those few simple words - “Did you hear?”


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted April 17, 2007

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