I am a conscientious reader of Miss Manners, the weekly column on etiquette by Judith Martin. What I like about her is that although she can tell you all the arcane rules, she is by no means a prig emphasizing rules for their own sake. Her main emphasis is on the role that manners play in being gracious and kind and considerate of others, and how it can smooth the rough edges that can arise in social interactions. She is sharp and funny and can be quite acerbic, especially when asked for advice about what to do with nosy or rude people. This recent column illustrates all these qualities.
Recently she addressed the following question that immediately spoke to me because I had just experienced the same thing at my daughter’s graduation.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: The time for school graduation ceremonies is upon us again. Unfortunately, I’ve been witnessing that in recent years, polite applause and inward pride are steadily losing ground to ear-piercing whistles and hooting and hollering like banshees upon hearing a loved one’s name read.
Some students have taken to unashamedly making assorted gestures intended to elicit additional outbursts from the audience. Moreover, they are being fully indulged by their friends and relatives.
Besides making what used to be dignified events uncomfortably loud for others around them, the excessive celebrants are drowning out the names of subsequent students filing past the podium. Effectively, they are stealing irreplaceable moments of joy from other families.
It’s all so tasteless and rude. What might you suggest be done to bring decorum back to these increasingly unbecoming spectacles?
I liked Miss Manners’ response.
GENTLE READER: Well, the school principals are trying, as you may have noticed. If it weren’t for all that noise, you would be able to hear them pleading for the applause to be withheld until all diplomas have been handed out.
It never works. The principals have lost whatever small authority they had left after college acceptances were received. Furthermore, they have little inclination to put a damper on a celebratory day.
Yet for some graduates, it does just that. Turning a mass celebration into a popularity contest might remind them how relieved they are to be leaving high school.
If Miss Manners were in charge of such a ceremony, she might say: “Now I realize that those of you who didn’t expect to make it through high school will be tempted to let loose and holler when you receive your diplomas, and that your families may be so overcome with relief that they will chime in. But you did make it, and your diplomas are just as good as everyone else’s. So I ask you to accept this honor with dignity, and not draw attention to how surprised you are.”
My daughter’s graduation ceremony last week was for a post-graduate degree, not high school, but the same thing happened. In fact, with my two children I have attended multiple graduation ceremonies and it is always the same, with some families ignoring the pleas to wait until the end to applaud, and seemingly come prepared to make as much noise as possible.
In my daughter’s case, the different schools had separate ceremonies due to the numbers involved but there were still nearly 600 graduates split over seven different programs who would be individually named and receive their diplomas. In order to save time, we were told at the beginning to withhold our applause until all of each group’s members had received their diplomas but of course, that did not stop many people from doing what the letter writer described. As a result only my daughter and a few others crossed the stage in silence. I actually felt bad about it, that we would be seen as somehow not as proud and supportive of her as other families, even though that is absurd. People also went to the front and stood up to take photos, waiting for exact moment, thus blocking the view of the people behind who may have not been able to see their own child receiving the diploma.
During the ceremony there were two occasions when there was loud and sustained applause. One was for a student who had suffered multiple and serious health problems and yet completed his degree and struggled to go across the stage to accept his diploma. The other was for a student whose wife had died of cancer just two weeks earlier. But in both these cases, the applause was led by their fellow students. That makes all the difference, and I felt that those exceptions to the rules were justified
At least we should be grateful that no fights broke at, as happened at a graduation ceremony for kindergartners in Cleveland. In that case, police had to be called in and arrested many people.
I personally have never attended any graduation ceremony that was held on my behalf. In Sri Lanka they only have ceremonies for college graduation but even those were cancelled during my time because they had become disrupted by political protests. I went to college at a turbulent time, with violent insurrections erupting and the university being closed for extended periods.
I frankly think we have gone overboard with graduation ceremonies in the US. We had ones for our children when they graduated from pre-school, elementary school, upper elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and post-graduate. Seven graduation ceremonies for each child? I like to think that I am supportive of their educational achievements but is all this really necessary? Each ceremony takes a long time, many of them cost a lot of money, sometimes people have to come from afar and listen to banal speeches full of platitudes and boilerplate advice, all for the sake of watching a family member walk across a stage and receive a diploma, a process that takes five seconds, tops. I feel that private celebrations with family and friends would be far more fun.