As a teen-ager, considering the value in life of various traits, I thought tact might be nice to have, like auburn hair. In my 20s, I began to see that people with tact were going to do better in life's sweepstakes than those without it.

By 30, I thought, "Oh Lord, why couldn't you have given me gills or scales and just included tact?"

I can walk into a 31-Flavors ice-cream shop and order No. 32. I tend to ask the French if they're Italian and the Germans if they're Swedes. It's a wonder I've survived.

But I want to roller-skate smoothly through human encounters. I want faces to beam at my approach, murmur pleasantly in my wake. I know what I want to achieve. I just don't know how to do it.

Could the tact professionals help? The State Department runs a school for budding diplomats, the Foreign Service Training Institute. Maybe there are training manuals. I phone. No, sorry, the only person who could speak to me is out.

I try the Library of Congress. Much microfilm-cranking and computersearching turns up one book under "tact"--Honest Andrew, a children's story about a young otter who "makes a few mistakes but finally learns to be honest and tactful at the same time."

So the answer is not in a book I can find. I'm going to have to ask real people. I call all the tact-resource types I can think of, those whose work depends on people-contact.

Graphics designer Tawney Harding keeps perfect fingernails and matte-finish style intact through long days with account executives, art directors and artists. Her secret?

"Often I bite my tongue. Don't fight when I want to. Tact is self-serving, especially in a business where you try to stay two steps ahead of what you're going to say. I 'cover' a lot. When someone hits me with a question and my first response feels wrong, I say, 'You know, I really haven't given that much thought.' In personal matters I try to be more candid, but even there I find myself frequently hedging."

So tact is thinking ahead, planning your moves, staying aware of the big picture?

Barbara Seeber, an editor at Science-81 magazine, must frequently reject or help authors re-write manuscripts, a sticky business.

"When I have to reject a piece, I try to pin the blame on some specific fault of the writing. That takes the writer's overall ego off the hook. If a piece is really awful, I just say blandly or generally that this just doesn't work for the magazine."

Says Sharon Nelson-Abramson, who has a general law practice on Capitol Hill:

"Tact for me is as simple as reminding myself that there are people who like the smell of cut grass. I hate it! I'm allergic to grass. But you've got to recognize that other people inhabit separate realities.

"Clients have to level with me, and they're more comfortable when I acknowledge the differences between us."

I asterisk this: *To reach other people, you must listen for their personal realities.

Paul London, who runs the Capitol Hill Squash Club, says most people-- except for "the shy, the inarticulate and the totally self-absorbed"--can learn to be more tactful.

"Sometimes it's as simple as just learning a softer or more graceful phrase. "It's my understanding that . . . " is infinitely better than "Well, that's the way it is."

Grace . . . I call some of those whose careers hinge on grace under pressure.

Channel 4 anchorman Jim Vance, a guy always facing deadlines, has an answer in under 3 seconds: "Tact usually means stroking egos".

Earle Palmer Brown, advertising/PR and political-image doctor, tells how he coaches the candidates.

"People don't like to be corrected directly, or in front of other people, so I do it privately. I videotape a client's presentation. Then we view it together, just the two of us. Usually they see what they're doing wrong. If they don't, I always make the suggestion a question, 'Do you think it might be better to . . . ?'"

Hank Myers, rector of Christ Church on the Hill:

"Have you looked up the word 'tact'? It comes from the Latin tactus--to touch. Someone who is tactful is in touch with what another person is feeling. A deeply tactful person allows you to get in touch with the full range of your feelings, pain as well as pleasure . . . You have to know how to reach people lost in distortions of feeling."

Leroy Upshur, director of Big Brothers for the National Capitol Area, whose expertise is reaching difficult youngsters:

"You make a boy feel part of a group that's doing something. The attention is focused away from his problem onto belonging and accomplishing things. You'll reach him pretty quick."

Says Anne C. Gay, pre-school teacher at St. Peter's School in the District:

"I try to get a child to put him or herself in the other child's place: 'How would you feel if someone said or did that to you?' I use concrete examples. In the long run, though, I think kids learn mostly by example."

So tact is caring, being aware of life around you. Self-serving? So is love.

My friend Suzanne, now with her own restaurant downtown, calls with a comment I like.

"Tact is born out of respect for the needs and feelings of others. You don't need to always say exactly what you think if it will be mean or hurtful. In a sense, tact is calling a spade a club."

That's it. That's it exactly.