Commencement Speech 2009

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Wow, it's been a busy year! Long time no write.

I was asked to be my school's commencement speaker this year, and since delivering the address I have had a number of requests for copies of the speech. I figured that it would be simpler just to post it here and direct interested parties to it rather than send multiple messages to various folks. I've omitted the courtesies and other such remarks; otherwise the text is as I gave it on Wednesday, 10 June 2009. (Added 14 June: if you want to simulate the experience of being in the audience, here's a photo of me speaking on the occasion.)


Graduations are funny things. They are occasions which center on the words that are spoken, but they are different from other spoken-word events such as lectures or plays in that they are not primarily intended to inform or to entertain their audiences. They are among those few times when the sole focus is for the words to make something happen. In this respect they resemble weddings. A couple is officially married only when an authorized person says some words, usually with the formula: "I now pronounce you..." The same thing happens at graduations. You become graduates of an institution only when an official of the school says that you are, usually accompanied by the word "Congratulations." These days, since spoken words are fleeting in memory and not usually credible to people who were not actually present at the proceedings, both occasions also require written words to certify that that the spoken words were actually spoken. For a wedding, the couple receives a marriage certificate, duly signed by the couple, the officiant, and a witness. At commencement, the graduates receive a diploma, so named because it must have TWO signatures ("di-" plomas) on it, in most cases the headmaster's or college president's, and the Board chair's.

What gives these documents meaning? Primarily two things: first, the authenticity of the signatures, seals, and other trappings of officialdom; and second, the text of the document. In the case of the Laguna Blanca diplomas to be given shortly (although perhaps not shortly enough for your liking), the text reads, "This is to certify that so-and-so has satisfactorily completed the Course of Study prescribed by this School, and having met the requirements for graduation, is entitled to this Diploma." The word "this" in "This is to certify" refers to the diploma itself, as the last part of the text makes clear. In other words, a diploma is a self-referential document and has authority for others mainly because it says it does, a situation which opens up all kinds of wonderful and puzzling paradoxes that are unfortunately beyond the scope of my talk today. More to the point, understanding that the diploma gives itself this authenticity through its use of language is an example of what is called "deictic rhetoric."

Which leads me back to the observation that graduations are funny things, and graduation speeches are even more funny things. They fall into the category of what Aristotle called "epideictic" or ceremonial rhetoric, which, as the name implies, are speeches that accompany and reflect on instances of deictic rhetoric such as graduations: epi-deictic. In other words, commencement speeches are words intended as ornamentation for events in which words are used to make things happen. It is no wonder, then, that the one consistent piece of advice I have been offered in preparing for this talk is: "Keep it short." There are a lot of words being spoken today, and many more to come as you receive your diplomas, so I will do my best to adhere to this advice. But since the members of the senior class apparently feel that I have not quite completed my task of imparting what little I know to them over the year (and since I have had some of them in two or even three classes simultaneously, I might be tempted to take this as a strong hint that I've done something wrong), I will now turn from this epi-epi-deictic preamble and offer a more traditional piece of epideictic rhetoric. As I have mentioned, graduation speeches are ornamental in nature, and since they mark occasions of change and transition from a comfortable, familiar world into a larger, less familiar one, they often take the form of "imparting final bits of wisdom as you make this big transition," which also explains why the event is officially known not as "graduation" but as "commencement." Far be it from me to depart from this tradition; but what wisdom I have is small, and most of it these soon-to-be graduates have heard already down in South Room. Nevertheless, I will offer what I can. I am borrowing from two masters today, whom I would be remiss not to credit. The first is the 20th-century philosopher J. L. Austin, who became famous for a series of lectures entitled "How to Do Things with Words." The second is the great American sage Mark Twain, whose own sober and heartwarming commencement address (in which he recommends, among other things, that young people should always obey their parents ... when they are present) is entitled "Advice to Youth." Herewith I humbly offer you "Advice on How to Do Things with Words."

When we think about situations in which language makes something happen, we think of occasions like this, but also of instances touching the law. Familiar ones include: "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private." "The court finds the defendant not guilty." "I promise to repay this loan under the specified conditions." These words do not simply describe some state of affairs: they bring that state of affairs into being. This function of language is not, however, restricted to legal occasions. One could argue that all language brings a state of affairs into being. It may not be precisely the one you imagine, though. For instance, it is a cliché that people who do not know each other well at a social gathering may find themselves talking about the weather, the local baseball team, or other such topics. This is called "small talk." Small talk is often dismissed as being shallow, uninformative, and impersonal, but to dismiss it this way is to miss the point of what small talk is all about. By showing your willingness to enter into conversation with a person you do not know well by introducing such inoffensive topics of conversation, you are signaling your intent to be friendly. In other words, it's not what you say that matters so much as the fact that you say anything at all. What matters is not the content of the speech; it is the act of the speech. And when you refuse to enter into such conversations, you signal your intent to be un-friendly. So the first piece of advice I have is: learn to make small talk, since doing so will tend to make you more friends than if you do not.

However, once you have made these friends, you would do well to get beyond the small-talk stage, since then you really will be perceived as shallow, uninformative, and superficial, with some cause. Fortunately, words can also help you keep your friends, if you choose both your words and your friends properly. Some tips:

Be honest. Those of you who watch Tim Roth's television show "Lie to Me" know how easy it is for people to be caught in a lie: but you don't have to be a micro-expression or gesture expert to detect most garden-variety falsehoods. As Joe Gargery says to Pip in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, "Lies is lies, and howsoever they come, they didn't ought to come. Don't you tell no more of 'em. That ain't the way to get out of bein' common." That is: being detected in lies hurts your ethos, your character, and it's nearly impossible not to be detected in lies. And just as small talk signals your intent to be friendly with strangers, lies often signal your intent to be deceptive, and most people don't like to be unwittingly deceived. Sometimes, though, being deceptive isn't an entirely bad thing. On "Lie to Me," the character Eli Loker is so uncomfortable with lies that he has adopted a policy of "radical honesty," in which he tells the whole truth as he sees it at all times. As you might imagine, he lets out some things that make most people a bit uncomfortable in most social situations, such as his unfiltered feelings of lust or scorn. So I don't recommend this kind of honesty: there are some truths that might be better left unsaid. In such cases, focus on the desire not to do harm to others, which is also a kind of honesty.

Stake claims. If people believe that you have no opinions, no ideas, and no interests, they will have little reason to continue their relationship with you. Many people think that we associate with others because of our similarities; but in fact it is mostly through differences that social networks survive. What is required, then, for interpersonal connections to prosper is information. The sociologist Gregory Bateson defined information as "a difference that makes a difference." In order to make a difference, you have to assert something that is uniquely your own. Your assertions will not always be right; but that's not always the most important thing, and as bright, perceptive people you will tend to be right more often than not, so you shouldn't worry about always being right. Through these differences that make a difference, all of us learn, and everyone is inherently interested in learning, an activity which is certainly not confined to the classroom. As a corollary, then, listen to the claims of others, and be willing to learn something from their different perspectives. You will find yourself more in demand as an audience than as a discussion dominator or an intellectual bully.

Make and keep small promises. Nothing builds your ethos faster than establishing a reputation for keeping your word, and nothing ruins your reputation faster than not keeping it. The emphasis here is on small promises: everyday kinds of matters, such as remembering to call or write at a specified time, or doing a favor in a timely way, or showing up on time for meetings and appointments. Folks who are habitually late or otherwise neglectful of agreements they have made tend to find it more difficult to get anyone to accept their word in more weighty matters, such as business deals, employment contracts, or long-term intimate relationships. Look for opportunities to practice this kind of commitment-keeping: you will find them all around you, all the time.

Pay attention to your audience and your context. Twain's point about obeying your parents when they are present reflects this idea, actually: we all tailor our behavior and our language to our particular situations. What works in one context might be unacceptable in another. All of you know these things. What you may not know, or remember, is that we don't always fully understand the context we are in. Conversations can be not only heard but overheard. Email messages are frequently sent to a wider audience than their writers intended, either through mistakenly pressing "Reply to All" or because someone else forwarded them without their authors' knowledge or consent. Facebook photos can be viewed easily by many, many people you would not want seeing them. And once anything is posted on the web, it quickly becomes permanently accessible through the Internet Archive, otherwise known as the Wayback Machine, through which you can view all the past versions of any web page for which you know the address. Our words have traces, whether we realize it or not. Remember that the next time you find yourself entering a flame war online, or a heated discussion in a public place: what you say or write often develops a life of its own, so you should be extraordinarily careful about what words you choose to give life to.

And finally, have the courage to own your words. As you can tell from the foregoing, language has a number of functions. We usually think of it as simply communicating ideas and meanings, and it certainly does that. But it always communicates other things as well -- such as intentions, credibility, and awareness of others -- which ultimately say as much about you as any "content" you also communicate. In order to stake your claims, signal your intentions, express your honesty, and honor your commitments, you have to be identified with your words, and you should want to be. That is why anonymous sources are taken less seriously than named sources, in print or online: it is easy to say many things -- especially hurtful or insincere things -- if their effects cannot be traced back to their source, who should accept responsibility for them. It is also why most people tend to frown upon the unattributed and unmarked borrowing of words, sometimes called "plagiarism," since it usurps the rightful attribution of good ideas and words from the people who are actually responsible for them, and thus is essentially a dishonest act, about which I have already spoken.

So my basic advice about how to do things with words is: be responsible and responsive. Be mindful of your words, since they reveal more about your own mind than you probably realize. And know that words are in fact powerful, as all of us here in attendance today implicitly believe.

This concludes the epideictic portion of the proceedings. Now let us witness and celebrate the ceremony of words in which these fifty-five students will become the 75th graduating class of Laguna Blanca School. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today, and congratulations to you all!

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Advice on How to Do Things with Words by David Barndollar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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This page contains a single entry by David Barndollar published on June 11, 2009 9:00 PM.

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