In Praise of Ceremonial Gratitude


Several years ago I was conversing with some other philosophers about philosophy presentations.  One of them described his frustration at having attended an interdisciplinary conference where the question and answer periods following the talks were unproductive.  His complaint specifically focused on the fact that each person who asked a question first thanked the speaker and expressed appreciation for the talk.  This time-wasting insincerity and empty formalism, he concluded, owed to the conference including participants from other disciplines, disciplines that, he implied, lack philosophy’s capacity to cut through vain cant.  A basic, free-floating appreciation for the talk should go without saying – after all, the audience had sat through it.  Anything more just wasted time better spent in critique of the work.


I have no idea how prevalent such sentiments about ceremonial gratitude are in the profession, but have since noticed that, in my own experience at least, it is uncommon to hear presenters thanked by those participating in Q & A sessions.  Indeed, I was once part of an interdisciplinary group and went in behaving “like a philosopher” only to realize I was the rudest person present.  Where others in my group habitually thanked speakers, I did not and it never dawned on me to do so, as hearing and expressing such gratitude was not part of my professional experiences. 


Insofar as philosophy Q & A sessions omit the niceties, I think this a shame.  Moreover, I suspect that this omission subtly influences the tone of such sessions, making them more likely to be agonistic and pugilistic.  So I’d like to suggest that we decline to treat expressions of gratitude as insincere cant or time-wasting and make such expressions habitual elements of responding to others’ work.


It’s likely that most who fail to thank at philosophy talks neglect this out of habituation, but that the discipline’s practices habituate us to such neglect is a problem.  I think there are multiple good reasons for engaging in ceremonial expressions of gratitude, but let me focus on tone. 


Expressing gratitude as the lead in one’s response to another’s work can set tone for all that follows, inclining the one asking a question to be tempered in what follows.  It is more difficult to be ungenerous and aggressive where one has enacted a courtesy first, I suspect. 


Likewise, one expression of gratitude can influence subsequent questioners – one person’s expression of appreciation may give pause to subsequent questioners’ impulse (should they feel it) to go for the presenter’s jugular.  We’re more likely to have humility about our own critical responses if we see that others are not merely critical but also appreciative. 


Gratitude can likewise increase what the audience may receive from the presenter, polite appreciation making it more likely that she will offer the full range of her insights, including those often valuable yet assailable ideas that cannot be expressed from a defensive crouch.  We may hear better and more if we first convey appreciation.  (The idea that our tone in engaging a presenter does not influence what we receive from her strikes me as crushingly naïve.) 


Expressing thanks for a talk, perhaps most basically, acknowledges and reinforces that, whatever a talk’s failings, the practice in which the talk participates (extending our scholarship to each other in hopes of shared dialogue and insight) is philosophy’s lifeblood.   That is, ceremonial gratitude can protect nobler understandings of our activities.


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17 thoughts on “In Praise of Ceremonial Gratitude

  1. thank you for reminding us the value of mutual respect and appreciation, as well as the nearly forgotten human quality of basic, minimal humility.

    it offers a balance between the 2 unhealthy but popular extreme practices of disrespectful sparring versus unnecessary flattery of superiors and power-figures.

    these ‘ceremonies’ need not be long and dragged out, but minimal decent mutual appreciation in any human gathering.

  2. “Appreciation” could mean a couple of things here. It could mean thanking the speaker for their time, efforts, etc., or it could mean expressing one’s appreciation of the quality of the talk.

    I’ve a hard time believing that it’s the former that your interlocutor is complaining about. Those niceties take about 10 seconds, and surely couldn’t be the cause of unproductive question/answer sessions. That latter however, in addition to taking up time, can also be patronizing.

    I’ve known faculty who preface every question with a 30 second statement of how wonsderful and insightful the talk was, how the speaker is really on to something, etc. – right before giving a devastating objection. This pattern seems to have no relation at all to the quality of the talk. Going from the plaudits, you’d think they’d never seen a poorly argued paper.

    Of course, everyone else in the audience believes the person could not possibly be sincere, because they’ve seen the same lousy paper. The plaudits at the beginning say, “I’m about to take your paper apart, but since I don’t think you’re emotionally strong enough to take it, I’m going to butter you up first.”.

    It’s says the speaker isn’t a true peer (who just has a bad argument, as we all do on occasion). Rather, they’re to be treated like 10-year old soccer player who is told she played a great game, regardless of the game. I admit to finding this frustrating as well.

  3. I’ve often said that in philosophy the general rule is: if you don’t have something not nice to say, then don’t bother saying it. A little bit of humor helps to cut through the acerbic tone, after all. More seriously, I often tell students that critical remarks are actually a sign of respect, and the time to be concerned is when no one has any questions to ask or any objections.

    That being said, I completely agree that we can take a moment to say one nice thing: thanks for a talk that got me thinking (after all, that is why I do what I do).

  4. I’m not a professor but sometimes it helps to hear an outside opinion (sometimes doesn’t help or makes things worse, though.)

    As long as the gratitude offered is-as suggested-very short (not something like ajkreider is worried about, quite fairly, I think) this is great advice! At the risk of a hijack, the biggest frustration I have with philosophy conferences is philosophers who give needlessly complex explanations of a simple objection. For eg a philosopher might want to say the title of a paper was incoherent(!!!), but she will start with “here would be a bad way to argue…” and then go on to an elaborate hypothetical that at its conclusion has incoherence, instead of just saying “your title is incoherent!”) I have also been frustrated by long lists of obscure references to history and philosophy prefacing an objection that is ultimately a well known logical fallacy (“In 1840 Elizabeth Stanton wrote a letter…” and then after 30 minutes it turns out Elizabeth Stanton’s friend’s mother’s sister committed the red herring fallacy, and so did the speaker, apparently.)

    I’m not explaining myself well (horribly, actually) but to me (whatever that’s worth) those are the most frustrating things about comments in your profession, and it really bugged me at the last conference I attended (also: I drink way too much coffee.) I have only been to a couple conferences per year in one state, though. I’m awful. And I love philosophy so much and this should not be seen as a more general criticism of you all!

  5. Yes, just to be clear, I’m referring to brief expressions of gratitude. My presumption is likewise that in the spirit of the thing, one will care about style – about not seeming patronizing, insincere, apple-polishing, etc. With respect to how time-wasting this can be if carried on too long, I tend to agree with NotUsuallyAnonymous that lack of brevity is an affliction far more general than this. I suppose the cynical side of me worries that philosophers would be too happy to “save time” by dispensing with ceremonial gratitude, the better to leave time for belabored comments and prefaces to questions that are far richer and deserving targets for economy.

    The worry that gratitude can suggest something along the lines of what ajkreider suggests – “I’m about to take your paper apart, but since I don’t think you’re emotionally strong enough to take it, I’m going to butter you up first” – is, I think, indicative of the atmosphere of the profession insofar as weakness and the suggestion of weakness are about the worst one can suggest of someone. Why not instead read the questioner’s appreciation as an excess of praise that implicitly acknowledges the questioner’s worry that what follows will entail the presenter losing face – i.e., instead of emotional cosseting of the weak why not see this as sensitivity to the dignity of the presenter? It may not be very successful but I think it can be read as a credit to the one who does it rather than an indirect insult to the presenter. We all sometimes write and present lemons, we all know the risks of getting pulped in Q & A, and trying to reduce the face-losing elements of that might actually be nice.

  6. I’m still worried about the insincerity part.
    You suggest making expressions of gratitude habitual elements of responding to others’ work. But that’s hard to distinguish from empty cant. When you say “thanks for the talk” to me, not because you actually feel a certain way but obviously just out of habit, that feels, not exactly insincere but hollow. And if every person who asks a question does the same, then it has a ritualistic quality that suggests superficiality rather than graciousness.

    I’ve exaggerated. But that’s the counterpoint. Really my feelings about it are mixed.

  7. My only concern is that sometimes Q&A sessions are too brief, especially in the non-philosophy conference I’ve attended. I get pretty frustrated when there are 8 hands in the air and 10 minutes of Q&A, and each person spends valuable time thanking the speaker. My impression has been that philosophy conferences are better at allocating a sufficient amount of time for Q&A (which I guess means that we have time to do far more thanking of the speaker).

  8. Slideraway, I think habit can be empty, but perhaps it’s a contest between the empty habit of not thanking and the empty habit of thanking. I suppose part of what I was thinking in the original post was that I have the former and so, even where I could sincerely and heartily express appreciation, internalized norms incline me against it or, rather, make it likely I’ll fail even to consider expressing appreciation. Maybe another way of putting this is that practices can be empty regardless – thanking or not thanking can be thoughtless and reflexive – but if choosing *which* empty practice to adopt, thanking might be more beneficial to feeling of community, shared purpose, avoidance of misanthropy, etc.

  9. I’m wondering a bit about how we are thinking about all this. There are many occasions in which one has to say something quite a bit nicer than one thinks. E.g., thanking one’s hosts for the dinner that tasted like poo (which one does not say), the present that will have to be dragged out when they visit, the truly amazing and deeply sexist ball gown they managed to find for one’s three year old, etc. One does not tell one’s child on their birthday that right now one is regretting the whole idea of having a family, and so on and so forth.

    So I’m wondering why we think there’s anything special – and especially bad – about being nice when asking a question in a conference session. I mean, we’ve got to be able to think of something other than “Your paper reminds me of poo.”

    Perhaps that’s just Miss Manners point.

  10. So I’m wondering why we think there’s anything special – and especially bad – about being nice when asking a question in a conference session. I mean, we’ve got to be able to think of something other than “Your paper reminds me of poo.”

    I think that Matt Drabek’s point is useful here. In nearly all talks I’ve been to, there are more questions than time for them. Most talks I go to, the question are honest ones, even if not always helpful. If some people don’t get to ask their questions because too many people say, “Thank you for your talk, I really liked it” or more before their questions, that’s bad for everyone. People who just think a paper is so bad that it’s not worth commenting on should be the ones to just keep quiet. A general “thank you” by the moderator before questions should be more than enough, I’d think.

  11. Saying, “Thanks so much for your talk. That was really thought provoking” takes 2.7 seconds (I just timed it). I doubt that prefacing questions with this kind of quick expression of gratitude will prevent anyone from asking a question. Even if 10 questioners started off with this kind of expression of gratitude, it would have eaten up less than half a minute. It seems to me there are lots of better ways that people could shorten their remarks/questions during Q&A given that time is of the essence.

  12. Maybe I’ve been attending all the wrong conferences, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that the extra seconds of Q&A are more valuable to the profession than the value of the habit that is manifested (and reinforced) by using those seconds for an expression of collegial courtesy, even if somewhat perfunctory.

  13. I attended a conference/workshop in SF this summer where participants were especially thoughtful in not just the content of their presentations, but their manners as well–thanking their organizer, one another as well in conveying very critical comments, and being just decent people. The best such event of my career. Cooperation versus the adversarial? No question which is better.

  14. Anne, thank you for this: “I mean, we’ve got to be able to think of something other than “Your paper reminds me of poo.””

    You made my night.

  15. Prof. Manners, I guess I’m siding with the empty habit of not thanking, because that way at least we aren’t all chanting empty things.

    Annejjacobson, there’s nothing especially bad about being nice at a conference session. I’m in favor of being nice at conference sessions. But you could try just *not* saying that the paper reminds you of poo; I don’t see why you have to thank the speaker for the poo as well.

    If someone tells you, “Wow, I love those shoes,” it’s nice and makes you feel good. If person after person at the hotel you’re staying at tells you how much they love your shoes, and you find out that they tell literally everyone the same thing, it no longer has the same meaning, and you might find it rather off-putting.

  16. I like Prof Manners’ point that Nemo picks up on above – spending a couple of seconds thanking the speaker introduces/reinforces a habit of collegiality, which then spreads a certain civil atmosphere in the discussion, and hopefully elsewhere that philosophers congregate.

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