4

If somebody is sincerely taking part in a futile or unneeded task with/for somebody, but rather than giving up, not bothering or flat out refusing they go along with it, not to humour them, but to show support and kindness.

Example sentences:

With only a <blank> she made to help her friend up after falling over, although she knew between her own strength and her friend's weight meant it would have made no difference; regardless they both knew she was more than capable of getting up by herself, but the <blank> was appreciated.

Applying for the job was only a <blank>, as Alex knew they were underqualified and had no intention of accepting an offer, but they also knew it would reassure their friend to know they hadn't applied alone.

He offered to buy food for the barista at the coffee shop, despite knowing he'd say no. It was a <blank>, but still meant a lot to the barista.

Ze put zir hand out as she got off the bus, ultimately a <blank>, as she didn't need helping and subsequently didn't lean any of her weight on zir. Rather than being offended by zir, the obvious <blank> made her smile.

Nugatory and performative seem too negative for my purposes. The phrase 'kind gesture' doesn't communicate that the one making it thinks it's not going to work or is not needed. Saying "It's the thought that counts" implies to me the gesture might have been sincere, but failure/lack of outcome wasn't a foregone conclusion.

What can I use to get this idea across?

4
  • Have you considered whether you need a specific word at all? The examples you proved make clear the futility of what they are doing. You would only need the word or phrase if you were a critic summarising or explaining what was going on.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 1, 2022 at 1:46
  • @tuffy part of the issue is that, in writing these examples in a way that articulates the phrase I'm lacking, I've necessarily invalidated the need for it. If these examples were phrased such that they made no sense without \<blank>, then they'd be useless in explaining what sort of word/phrase \<blank> was. Very much a catch-22 situation from where I'm looking. Jan 1, 2022 at 3:28
  • I understand. But in that case, why do you need it?
    – Tuffy
    Jan 1, 2022 at 9:36
  • 1
    @tuffy because I think the examples suffer being so awkwardly worded. Jan 1, 2022 at 11:38

8 Answers 8

9

I wouldn’t overthink this; you’ve already hit upon a perfectly good word:

gesture, n.
4. b. transferred and figurative; spec. [after French geste; compare BEAU GESTE n.] a move or course of action undertaken as an expression of feeling or as a formality; esp. a demonstration of friendly feeling, usually with the purpose of eliciting a favourable response from another.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

They both knew she was more than capable of getting up by herself, but the gesture was appreciated.

Applying for the job was only a gesture, as Alex knew they were underqualified and had no chance of receiving an offer.

It was a gesture, but still meant a lot to the barista.

Rather than being offended by zir, the obvious gesture made her smile.

3
  • 3
    That seems... Obvious now. 🤦🏻‍♂️ Dec 31, 2021 at 23:35
  • +1. Or a "mere gesture" (or similar)
    – abligh
    Jan 1, 2022 at 9:43
  • 1
    Or "empty gesture" is fairly common. Jan 2, 2022 at 14:20
4

You could try token.

Cambridge

token: noun

something that you do, or a thing that you give someone, that expresses your feelings or intentions, although it might have little practical effect

The word may also be used adjectivally in token gesture. For example,

Cambridge

token: adjective

"The wording of the advertisement was merely a token gesture towards equal opportunities"

3
  • Token on its own works better than Token Gesture, which sounds to insincere Dec 31, 2021 at 22:41
  • @pureferret given the example was an advertisement, the implication of insincerity seems deliberate.
    – barbecue
    Dec 31, 2021 at 22:47
  • @barbecue in that case it doesn't fit my question Dec 31, 2021 at 23:10
2

Go through the motions (Phrase)

If you say that someone is going through the motions, you think they are only saying or doing something because it is expected of them without being interested, enthusiastic, or sympathetic.

'You really don't care, do you?' she said quietly. 'You're just going through the motions.'

[Collins]

to do something without making much effort to do it well

He claimed that he was looking for a job, but he was really just going through the motions.

[Merriam-Webster]

2
  • 1
    I commend this as a good choice of description. Although the phrase does not fit neatly into the blanks of the statements in the question (which require a noun or noun phrase to follow the indefinite article), it is an excellent idiomatic description of what is happening and could be easily used with only minor changes to the statements.
    – Anton
    Dec 31, 2021 at 22:57
  • How does this phrase imply the action is meant to "show support and kindness."? Dec 31, 2021 at 22:58
1

Applying for the job was only a small kindness, as Alex knew they were underqualified and had no intention of accepting an offer, but they also knew it would reassure their friend to know they hadn't applied alone.

Perhaps your situations are examples of a small kindness, i.e., using your word, kindness, as a count noun, an instance of it.

kindness (n.)

[count noun] A kind act.

It would be a kindness on your part to invite her. Lexico


He used to sit with Josh on the couch until his parents got home from the movies, a small kindness but still a kindness. Lucas Mann; Lord Fear: A Memoir (2016)

I marched in that Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with holes in my shoes and a trombone that wouldn't play. I faked every song, extending my arms dramatically to look like I was playing in sync with the others, but there was no sound at all coming out of my instrument. Everyone else was playing their hearts out with great gusto while I could only pretend to play. The band leader knew it, too, but he never said a word. He let me fake my performance so I wouldn't miss the trip. It was such a small kindness, but it's one I will always remember. T. March and M. Karlins; Paying it Backward (2020)

1

"Thoughtful Consideration"?

Perhaps it is not as eloquent as you might be seeking, but personally I would have used "thoughtful consideration" in place of all the blanks in the provided examples (except in cases where it may have appeared twice and could be considered somewhat repetitive).

~However, it's worth noting that I do recognize the circumstances and purpose behind their dual inclusion and sincerely appreciate the thoughtful consideration that went into articulating your intentions.*

*(Said both as a true statement and as an example to confirm whether or not the understanding is congruent with the request)

Supplemental Notes

Please excuse me if I'm being too literal here, but to show support and kindness and to be sincere about it is a bit different than wanting to appear or seem to be sincere about showing that support or kindness. That is to say that if one's intention is to convey a sense of sincerity in their gesture of support (and is genuinely being sincere), then it should be irrespective of whether or not the one making the gesture thinks it's not going to work or is not needed as the action would be coming from a place of consideration which allows any perceived notion of it being needed/not needed, significant/insignificant, or helpful/unhelpful be determined by the receiver, as it should be. How the receiver might infer the intentions of the gesture should not be influenced by the one offering or making the action if showing support and kindness is the true motive, at least, in my opinion anyway.

In contrast, if the motive was (and I don't believe this applies in this case but only offer it as a means of clarification) just to appear like a kind and supportive person or to appear as a sincere person, whereas perhaps there is no genuine desire to be supportive but is an action being performed simply out of habit or because it's what is expected and as a result of pressures imposed by societal norms, then in that case and for the purpose of display, a phrase to express that failure/lack of outcome wasn't a foregone conclusion might seem more like an oxymoron. At least, and please don't confuse my explanation as an accusation by any means, the impression I might be under if Nugatory and Performative are considered too negative for the intended purposes and seems to infer a desire to express some lesser level of negativity rather than none at all.

It might all just be conceptual semantics but, if there is greater difficulty conveying the meaning accurately, it may be helpful to ensure that the desired meaning is accurate of the intention.

0
0

In the context of the examples provided, 'futile gesture' stands on its own. In these cases, gesture has a positive connotation, indicating reconciliation, kindness, politeness, etc.

A 'futile gesture' is generally understood to be a failed attempt to produce an improvement or positive outcome, and won't be likely to be used to describe a failed attempt to cause trouble or harm.

1
  • My first paragraph wasn't doing enough to make my point, so I've edited the examples to be closer to my intention, rather than thinking it would be implied. See if your suggestion still fits. Dec 31, 2021 at 23:05
0

The idea that the particular act performed is useless is not directly expressed by the term "perfunctory", but the idea of something done as a matter of usual behaviour but without much faith in the outcome is certainly contained in the word. It seems that conveying on top of that that the act is done out of kindness is not essential since as otherwise depicted in the examples it is seen to be one (except in the third example).

(OALD) perfunctory adjective /pəˈfʌŋktəri/ /pərˈfʌŋktəri/ (formal)
​(of an action) done as a duty or habit, without real interest, attention or feeling
♦ a perfunctory nod/smile
♦ They only made a perfunctory effort.

The SOED has a more enlightening definition.

perfunctory 1 Done as a piece of routine or duty; done for form's sake only and so without interest or enthusiasm; formal, mechanical L16

As this is an adjective, a noun will have to complete it, which is a boon as in the repetitions this noun can be varied more or less synonymously.

With only a perfunctory attempt she showed her willingnes to help her friend up after she had fallen over, although she knew her own strength and her friend's weight meant it would have made no difference; regardless they both knew she was more than capable of getting up by herself, but the act, even if perfunctory, was appreciated.

Applying for the job was only a perfunctory matter, as Alex knew they were underqualified and had no intention of accepting an offer, but they also knew it would reassure their friend to know they hadn't applied alone.

He offered to buy food for the barista at the coffee shop, despite knowing he'd say no. It was a perfunctory attempt, but still meant a lot to the barista.

Ze put her hand out as she got off the bus, ultimately a perfunctory gesture, as she didn't need helping and subsequently didn't lean any of her weight on zir. Rather than being offended by zir, the obviously perfunctory act made her smile.

Note: To do something perfunctorily is well paraphrased by the expression "go through the motions", which has been mentionned in this answer : user405662's answer.

-1

I've seen this as empty gesture. Collins doesn't seem to have a definition as such, but it does have some examples. (I don't know what's going on with Collins lately.)

6
  • 1
    Aren't empty gestures generally quite negative? I'm looking for the opposite of negative. Jan 1, 2022 at 3:53
  • @Pureferret - I believe the person executing the empty gesture manages to come across as a saint. Jan 1, 2022 at 3:54
  • No; UD gives the default meaning of 'make an empty gesture': to say something without an intention of actually doing it. Making an offer that is not intended to be fulfilled or even taken up by someone.) Jan 1, 2022 at 12:12
  • @EdwinAshworth - That's one; I will try to find the one I found about the appearance of saintliness. But there might be a UK-US difference on this one. What I understand from "empty gesture" is that it's mainly for show because in the end it's going to be useless. Jan 2, 2022 at 20:18
  • @EdwinAshworth - Some possible support for my opinion that empty gestures aren't negative on the surface: “So this notion that only gay actors should play gay characters? That only a Cuban actor should play Desi? Honestly, I think it’s the mother of all empty gestures and a bad idea" (pinknews.co.uk/2021/12/19/…) / mandatory.com/living/… / ageofrevolutions.com/2018/09/07/… Jan 3, 2022 at 19:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.