Graduation etiquette

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.


  1. NinetyEight says

    Who actually wants the ceremonies? The graduates, the parents, or the school itself? I never wanted to attend.

    I am old enough that I do not recall any grade school ceremonies although they may have simply been unmemorable. In high school there was definite threat of withholding one’s diploma if one did not attend graduation else I would not have been there. Similar threat existed for college and I arranged a valid reason to not attend my undergraduate ceremony but special circumstances caused me to attend anyway. Finally on leaving graduate school I was able to simply decline attendance without any fuss and have the diploma mailed to me.

  2. Timothy says

    Your words are quite timely, Mano, as I just attended my son’s High School graduation. The event was marred (in my opinion) by people hooting and hollering.

    I agree with 98. I, too, was (essentially) forced to attend my High School and Bachelor’s graduation. I, too, opted out of my graduate school graduation.

    98, my sense is that graduation ceremonies are for the families … some small public recognition of all the sacrifices we have made to get our relation to the point of graduation. My son wanted to opt out of graduation, too. While I felt his pain, I know that his mother and grandparents were very excited about attending. I told him something along the lines of, “Graduations ceremonies are similar to funeral ceremonies — neither are conducted for the benefit of the central person.”

    As a parent, I must admit that I felt the most interest in attending my son’s graduation than any of mine. (To my great relief, there was no keynote speaker. I very much agree with Mano’s, “…banal speeches full of platitudes and boilerplate advice …”)

    Mano wrote, ” 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.” This makes complete sense to me. In fact, as my son’s graduation ceremony progressed, the family sitting behind us began clapping and cheering for random students who walked across the stage in silence because, as one of the members said, “I feel bad for them because nobody is cheering for them.”

    Finally, I agree with Mano’s assessment of graduation ceremonies. Here in the US, we’ve gone completely overboard.

  3. richardrobinson says

    I hope graduations don’t go that route in Canada. I don’t believe I was ever required to attend any graduation ceremony. I chose to attend both my high school graduation and the convocation for my bachelor’s degree. In the first case, the diploma is actually issued by the province and arrived by mail shortly after exams were finished, so the school has no leverage, and in the second, I filled out a form where I indicated whether I would attend convocation, or I could make arrangements to receive my diploma by mail.

    The idea that a school would withhold your credentials seems, frankly, actionable to me.

  4. coragyps says

    At my youngest daughter’s ceremony for her Master’s – and here in Texas, at that – people were quite polite about not hootin’ n hollerin’ like Texans ordinarily would. Yay. But the day was almost ruined anyway – Karl Rove was in the same building, as the speaker at a meeting of The Philosophical Society of Texas. And I actually saw him.

    I guess Machiavelli is sometimes referred to as a philosopher………

  5. Guess Who? says

    My son is graduating high school next week. He so very much doesn’t want to attend the graduation; he graduated from preschool, kindergarten, fifth grade, and eighth grade (that was 4.5 hours for 30 kids in 90-degree heat). These things are ridiculous, and I’ve been hit up in recent years to provide gifts for pre-school graduates. It’s no big achievement to complete preschool.

  6. says

    I’m British. I went to the ceremony for my parents’ benefit, and I was rather surprised to enjoy it myself. We had polite hand clapping for everyone, except the disabled young man, who got cheers as well. None of it went on long enough to slow the ceremony down.

  7. TGAP Dad says

    When my two older graduated high school, both commencements were boisterous, celebratory affairs. Most of the kids’ mortar boards were adorned with messages or were bedazzled. Cheering and applause were loud and long for every one of the 340 or so graduating seniors, but loudest and longest for a young lady who’d spent most of senior year in a wheelchair as a double amputee. She walked across under her own power with new prosthetics and crutches. A very moving and touching experience.

    My oldest just graduated college, and her two commencements (she was a double major) were much more sedate affairs, which included faculty presentations of each graduating senior, and award presentations. Naturally the graduating classes were smaller.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    Finally on leaving graduate school I was able to simply decline attendance without any fuss and have the diploma mailed to me.

    Mirror image: that was the only graduation ceremony I actually attended. At that university, if PhD recipients attended they would be formally hooded, and you got to keep the hood!–so you never had to rent one for any of the appearances in faux-mediaeval costume that you had to put in at other people’s graduations, convocations, etc. Borrowing a gown and cap is easy, renting cheap–but renting hoods is pricey. Big savings over the years.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Interesting article. My only complaint is against disruptive behavior that prevents other students from receiving any attention (or even having their names heard) because of the antics of others and their families.

  10. srjsac says

    Going to a collage graduation recently was an eyeopener. The mother and two sisters of a graduate talked non stop, received phone calls and conversed with the callers, shared and commented on cell phone pictures and played musical chairs, standing to block the view. At the conclusion of the ceremony once their graduate was done walking the isle they bolted for the appetizers with three children in tow. The guests were asked to remain seated and allow the graduates to go for appraisers first but these bores wouldn’t have heard any announcements.
    I found myself wondering if this was cultural due to the head coverings and the fact that they were virtually the only ones being so disrespectful. After reading some Muslim sites stating that graduation ceremonies should be avoided due to males and females being seated next to each other I found myself wondering if this was intentional. What is the proper thing to do? I did not want to create more controversy by speaking and possibly causing a scene.

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