Nodding as a Non-Performative

We learn about institutions by learning how complaints are stopped. In an earlier post I discussed how complaints can be stopped by the use of warnings. Warnings articulate a no, don’t go there. Warnings are useful because they make suggestions about an appropriate course of action with reference not to abstract rules about rights or wrongs but to a person’s own health and safety. A warning can be saying: if you make a complaint you will endanger yourself or your career. In this post, I want to explore how complaints can also be stopped by a yes. That yes is not necessarily saying, yes go there or yes do that.  So: what is that yes saying? Or what is that yes doing?

Questions can be inheritances: I ask these questions because of what I have been hearing from those who have made or tried to make formal complaints.  One student makes a complaint about harassment from other students. She describes what happened when she talked to her head of department: “He seemed to take it on board, he was listening; he was nodding. Ten days later I still had not heard anything. A space of limbo opened up.” It is striking to me how a limbo is described as a space: you make a complaint and that is where you end up; a limbo as what is opened up. To be in limbo is to be left waiting. I am interested in what the head of department is doing by nodding. Nodding is not the only thing happening. But nodding is how the head of department is communicating that he is listening; nodding as taking (or seeming to take) something on board. If she feels heard she does not then hear anything. She has to do what many who make complaints have to do: follow it up; send reminders; prompts. When you don’t hear anything you have more work to do.

Many of those I have talked to about making complaints have talked about nodding. Nods seem to surround complaints. We learn from our surroundings. A nod is when you move your head up and down, often several times, to show an agreement, approval or a greeting. That a head is doing something by moving reminds us that heads are parts of a body; a nod is a bodily gesture or how a body gestures. The movement of a head up and down seems to be telling the one who is giving the complaint that their complaint is not only being received but is being received well. What we are left with is often how we can understand something: if you feel encouraged perhaps that is what nodding is doing: nodding as encouraging.

This post is a proposition:  we can think of nodding as non-performative, which is not to say this is the only way we can think about nodding. Thus far I have used the category of “non-performative” primarily to refer to institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name (1). I introduced the term “non-performative” as a kind of counter-claim: I was trying to counter a claim that institutional speech acts are performatives that I could hear in how statements of commitments were being used by organizations: as if saying “we are diverse” or we are “committed to diversity” is sufficient to bring something about. Diversity itself might function as a nod, a yes, yes, that does not require much movement at all. If a nod can operate in the realm of the non-performative, then bodies can be in on the act, that is, bodies too can appear to act. A nod can be made in order not to bring something into effect. A head does not even have to move for a nod to be performed. I want to think about nodding not only as a specific gesture but as how a yes is performed or enacted.

I spoke to an academic about how she came to a decision about whether to complain about the conduct of senior members of her university including heads of departments and a pro-vice chancellor around a table. She was the only women at that table. She describes how they were “talking about women’s bodies, what they look like, what they do to them as men, what they would do to them. Very sexual. Very sexist jokes. Very sexually overt conversations and I was sitting there as if I was not there.” It was a deeply distressing experience in part as she had assumed the organisation to be as progressive as it claimed to be. She took the matter up by speaking to another pro vice chancellor and the director of human resources: “I had a hearing …but I think it was just to placate me.” To placate is to calm or to sooth.  Placate derives from the word please, to be agreeable.  If a hearing functions to placate, then a hearing can be used to calm someone down by the appearance of receiving something or of being agreeable to something.

Being placated is another way a complaint is stopped. I wonder if a hearing is offered when a hearing is deemed sufficient to complete the action of complaint. When hearing about a problem is offered as a solution, a hearing becomes dissolution. When these senior managers did not do anything after hearing the complaint, and not doing is an action not simply inaction, she decided not to take the complaint any further.

It is important to think more about how a hearing can be a stoppage or part of a longer history of stoppages. Nodding seems often to be what you receive (or how you are received) in the early stages of a complaint process. Perhaps over time, nods wear out. We often learn how things work by how they are wearing.  One academic indicated that she intended to make a formal complaint about bullying and harassment by another academic. Initially, she is met with sympathetic responses. She describes the “initial sympathy and concern from various offices and individuals” as “largely rhetorical.” She is implying that the sympathy can be given because it is empty; words can be said because of what they do not do. This is not to say that sympathy is not doing something (2). We can learn what sympathy is doing by how sympathy is withdrawn.

When she persists with making a formal complaint, she is received less sympathetically.  She describes “the more insistent I was on filing a formal complaint, the more resistant the institution was to addressing my concern; confidential, informal mediation was strongly preferred, because it involves neither fact-finding nor fault-finding.” Formal complaints I have noted in earlier posts are data rich; the complainer is required to gather evidence to support the complaint.  In this case, the data included information about bullying and harassment by another member of faculty who was highly valued.  To move forward to a formal complaint is to present that data. She notes “On multiple occasions, someone who had initially seemed to be supportive withdrew support or concern–after I had shared sensitive information.” Sympathy is withdrawn, no more nodding, as an institutional resistance to receiving “sensitive information.” I am interested in how data is sensitive; how data can touch an institutional nerve. If a yes does not lead to a withdrawal of your no (a nod as a yes to no), a no returns (no nod as no to no).

Perhaps we can think of nodding as a way of creating an atmosphere. I talked to two students about their experience of making a formal complaint about harassment in their former department. I referred to their testimony in my post, Strategic Inefficiency: they showed me how some complaints are not recorded properly (a process as a bumbling along), and how not recording a complaint is a way of not treating a complaint as a complaint:

Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written. 

Student 2: It was very odd.

Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.

Student 2: Very odd; very odd.

Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.

Informality can be used as a way of setting a tone; it can be a way of trying to discourage the formality of a complaint. To turn a complaint into a casual conversation is to try to wrap it up.  Maybe a nod can be thought of as a way of wrapping up a conversation. If so, then: positive intonation can be an instrument. You can conduct a conversation as a “cosy chat” to stop what is deemed negative (those who are deemed negative) from getting out or getting through. A nodding might also be accompanied by smiling. A nod can be an attempt to transfer a positive feeling to the complaint or to a complainer. No wonder then: a complaint is a killjoy genre. Those who persist with making a complaint ruin the cosy atmosphere (“there was a shift in the atmosphere”). If you persist with a complaint you become an affect alien: you have failed to be affected in the right way.

It is important to think more about how nods and yeses are performed among a wider community of actors; a yes is not just delivered from one person to another. A yes can be relayed between persons. One academic described a number of failed attempts to get her complaints about harassment and bullying taken seriously. In her last attempt, she feels more hopeful because her complaint is received with the same sense in which it is made, that is, with a sense of urgency. When hearing the complaint, a member of human resources says yes: “yes you really have a case we can explore and investigate: how you would feel coming back to talk to our director later today?” On the same day she talks to the director of human resources: “I felt really supported by him.” She notes that “he also said this isn’t the first complaint like this he’d heard within the institution and that he’d heard similar complaints within our division.” The director of human resources is telling her that her complaint is not the first complaint: if there are similar complaints, there are similar problems. So she has reason to believe that they are going to take the complaint, and her, more seriously. She is told that the diversity and equity office will follow it up: “he said that she said she would follow up with me to have further conversations because they wanted to further investigate this.” Through these conversations, which include conversations about conversations, she feels encouraged: “I thought this is great, this is already moving faster than my process here, this is great; this is awesome.” But then: she does not receive any more communications: “Not even a response to an email, not even I have got your email I am looking into it. Nothing. Nothing.”

A yes can be how you end up with nothing. Nothing can be what is being achieved by nodding.

An academic brings a complaint to her line manager about how her university handled her sick leave, which turned into a grievance about how she had been treated by her university. She notices how her line manager kept saying yes: “I would say he’s a yes man. So whenever I’d talk to him he would say yes but I knew the yes was definitely not a yes; it was a ‘we’ll see.’” Perhaps a yes can be said because there is not enough behind that yes to bring something about.

Yes saying can be understood as management technique. She describes this technique as magical: “this weird almost magical thing that happens when you speak to people in management when you go in there and you kind of ready for it, and you are really fired up and you kind of put your complaint, your case, your story to the person, and then you sort of leave as if a spell has been cast, leave feeling like ok something might happen and then that kind of wears off a few hours later and you think oh my gosh. It is like a slight of hands, almost like a trick, you feel tricked.” The feeling that something might happen can be what is being achieved; to be left with a sense you are getting somewhere is how you end up not getting anywhere. A nod can be an attempt to extinguish a fire, to calm as to cool things down. A yes can stop a complaint from progressing by diffusing the energy of the one who complains.

We learn how you can manage complaints by managing where they are expressed. Perhaps we are allowed to say no when that no has nowhere to go.

Another academic describes what followed when students lodged a complaint about the behaviour of professors at research events. A meeting is set up: “they said they would have an open meeting but it was just about calming [the students] down.”  It is worth noting here that the meeting is set up by the same professors the students are complaining about. Often who receives the complaint is enough to explain how it will be received.  An open meeting appears to be a chance for the students to express themselves – to present their complaint. We are back to sensitive data. You can allow a complaint to be expressed in order to contain the complaint. I think of this mechanism as institutional venting. Venting is used as technique of preventing something more explosive from happening.  Once the students have vented their frustrations, once they have got complaint out of their system, the complaint is out of the system.  The mechanism is rather like a pressure relief valve, which lets off enough pressure so that it does not build up and cause an explosion. Or a complaint can be thought of as steam: puff, puff. In being let out, it disappears. A hearing can be a disappearing; we are back to those magic tricks; puff, puff.

Of course sometimes we need to create spaces to vent our frustrations because of how much we are required to contain ourselves (3). We might need to vent in order not to explode because frankly we have work to do and it is hard to work and explode at the same time. We let it out so we can get about. What we need to do to survive the institutions we are trying to transform can be useful to those who are trying to stop us from transforming institutions.  We can know this and still need to vent about this.

How complaints are received has something to tell us about why complaints are made in the first place. Complaints are immanent: they are about what we are in. I will be unpacking the significance of immanence as I work through and with these materials. A complaint archive is fragile; it is an archive to which I have a duty of care.

And I too am in it: I am writing and speaking about what I am in. One time I gave a lecture that included a discussion of nodding as a non-performative. The lecture was funded centrally so there were a number of senior managers in attendance. They were seated toward the front of the lecture theater. Afterwards some students came up to me (thank you to all the students who come up to me!). They had been seated behind the senior managers. The students observed that the senior managers had been nodding throughout my lecture including nodding during my discussion of nodding.  If you are nodding about nodding, you are still nodding; an affirmative hearing can reproduce the problem of the affirmative. The students were at the tail end of a long and difficult complaint. And they told me that the management had enacted the same tactics that I was describing in the lecture. So what then is that nodding doing? Perhaps a nod can be about a public performance; it can be about being seen as giving an approval. A public nod can be made because it can be easily withdrawn when you are behind closed doors, which is where complaints are mostly made. If nods can be withdrawn in time they can also be withdrawn in space.

Nodding can be about recognising a problem insofar as the problem is safely construed as being somewhere else or as coming from someone else. In other words nodding can be a way of not recognising one’s implication in a problem at the very moment that the problem is recognised. You can nod if a paper is heard as addressing a problem located elsewhere; we are back to the nod as a container of expression.  A nod can be how a problem is enacted by the appearance of being heard. (4) And we really need to think about how difficult this experience is and would be: to witness a public nod, the appearance of being supportive, by those who are trying to stop you from taking a complaint forward, those who are trying to bully you out of a complaint. Many of those I have spoken to have versions of this difficulty: minding the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is often about learning what public nods are used to conceal. When those who appear supportive in public are not supportive behind closed doors it can be extremely alienating. Because when a nod is performed well, it does not even appear as a performance; you know that others, those who are not where you are, doing what you are doing, not witnessing what is happening behind closed doors, might be convinced. You know that a nod might be convincing because of a story it can be used to tell; you know that some peers might want to be convinced, to find in the nod, a reason for hope, a reason not to give up on an idea of the institution as being warm and inclusive.

There can be many reasons for nods. I have by no means exhausted what nods do or can do. We can nod in encouragement when we sense someone is feeling nervous. We can catch someone else’s nod as a way of being affected by their encouragement. Nodding can be how are caught up in what is shared. If a nod can be an instrument, we learn that affection and instrumentality are not separate domains. When are trying to understand how power works, through listening to those who are trying to challenge how power works, it is important to keep this in mind. Power is not always being asserted by the uses of rods or other technologies that more obviously indicate coercion; we are not always facing the scowl of disapproval. A nod, a smile, an appeal to your loyalty and affections: these too can be methods used to try to stop someone from complaining, which is also about trying to contain the data of that complaint. It is the data that is explosive. I will talk more about explosive data in future posts. We need more explosions.

If the nod is withdrawn when you go ahead with a complaint, you are learning about the conditions in which you were given a sympathetic hearing. Those who complain often come to witness retrospectively how the sympathy they had previously been given was conditional on what they were willing not to do. Those who go ahead with formal complaints are thus teaching me so much about the conditions of sympathy.



Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.

  1. I am adapting Judith Butler’s definition of performativity: “those speech acts that bring about what they name” (1993, 225).
  2. Non-performatives too are doing something. Working on the uses of use has helped me to articulate just what they are doing. One of my examples of a non-performative is a new diversity policy that came into existence without coming into use. When the new policy does not come into use despite being agreed, the existing policies remain in use; the action being performed is the maintenance of what already exists. Non-performatives are how an arrangement is continued despite or even through an agreement to modify that arrangement. As such non-performatives are doing the work of continuation; a continuation of an existing arrangement requires work, it is dependent on actions, when attempts to modify that arrangement are made. This is why diversity work teaches us about non-performatives.
  3. I need to think more about the role of venting as a counter-institutional survival tactic. Thanks to Gavin Stevenson who asked me a great question about uses of venting in inter-personal relationships as well as Sisters Uncut who in a recent panel linked venting to safe spaces in a really striking and distinctive way.
  4. Perhaps in being invited to speak from my research, I am receiving a nod, a nod can be a mask: as if to say, we hear you, which often can mean, look, look; watch us giving approval, watch us being supportive, see how committed we are to changing the culture of the institution! Invitations can often function as screens, that is, can be used as evidence of a commitment to changing the culture. I need to stay aware of this as a problem: however much I am trying to describe how commitments can be used as evidence I too can be used as evidence.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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4 Responses to Nodding as a Non-Performative

  1. Georgina Turner says:

    I haven’t been able to come to any of your talks about your work on complaint, so I’ve been hoovering up your posts here. So much of what you’re talking about chimes with what I know of and am hearing about in relation to the BBC/Ofcom complaints procedures with respect to LGBTQ+ audiences, and it offers a strange sort of relief to know that we’re not alone, even at the same time as it’s infuriating that this should be the case. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for sharing your work in such accessible ways, and in particular for helping me to put my finger on something. I recently spoke to the head of the complaints process at the BBC, and came away feeling very positive – he’d said ‘yes’ to so much of what I’d pointed out, and been very pleasant to speak to, but the more time that passes, the more I look at the transcript of our conversation and wonder if I was sold a dummy. And I’ve been blaming myself – I should have seen it! I should have followed up more! etc etc.

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