Put your hands together…

If you’ve ever watched one of those nature shows on cable television, you know that the commentator often devotes a portion of his monologue to the strange habits of the creatures being featured on the show. Nobody quite knows why lemmings jump off cliffs or why wolves howl at the moon, but jump and howl they do.

Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been thinking about a few things that human beings do that are really, really strange. You wouldn’t think so at first, maybe, but if you stop and take the time to analyze these behaviors, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

Kissing is one. I won’t dwell on that one for too long, but seriously: who ever decided that that was a good idea? I mean, I’m all for it personally, but it’s a pretty funny behavior if you think about it. Why is touching your lips to someone else’s the way that we show affection? It’s especially odd when you consider the fact that you would never, ever want to do it unless you’re really interested in someone. Most of the time, if you look at the average person walking down the street, you’d still think of it like you did as a young kid: gross!

Another one, which we seem to have developed more recently, is tanning. You know, it wasn’t always the case that you had to bake yourself under the sun (or in a box or booth) in order to be considered attractive; in fact, well into the twentieth century, society looked upon tanned skin as evidence of low-class roots. Being tanned by the sun probably meant you labored in the sun and couldn’t afford the leisure to remain inside (or under a parasol), far from its harmful rays. Now, we’ve decided that the opposite is true, so pale is out—and cancer is in!

The one I’m really thinking about, though, is applauding. After attending a number of concerts this past weekend, it struck me as odd (as it has before) that this is something we all do. Perhaps this is something you’ve always taken for granted, so bear with me for a moment.

Why is it, exactly, that beating our hands against each other and making slapping noises is the way that we’ve chosen, as a civilization, to show approval?

Of course, there are other ways. Some hoot and holler. Some stamp their feet. Some shout “bravo!” (or “brava!”, as the case may be).

But, for the most part, we clap.

I wanted to do a little research on the subject, and turned to my old fallback, Wikipedia. However, it wasn’t very helpful: “The custom of applauding may be as old and as widespread as humanity.”

Gee, thanks…

Actually, though, the article goes on to note a number of interesting things about this apparently very old habit, including the following:

  • The ancient Romans had a whole set of conventions surrounding applause, which diversified into many forms to show varying levels of approval: snapping the fingers, clapping with palms (as we do), and even waving the flaps of the toga.
  • French theaters hired groups of professional applauders to sit in the audience and artificially increase the sound of the clapping. This is how the English word claque comes to us.
  • Early Christian ministers encouraged applause following their sermons, perhaps a crossover from practices in the theater. (Tell that to your average Lutheran congregation today!)
  • The world record for the most claps in sixty seconds is 793, and is held by Tim Ahlstrom of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I just had to list that one because I’m from Wisconsin.

On many television shows, neon signs are now used to tell audience members exactly when (and when not) to applaud, and perhaps it’s all for the best.

After all, society today has become confused about applause, as it has about many other things. When I go to the symphony in Boston, for example, there’s always at least one person who doesn’t know not to clap between movements. And at a recital series that I run on the university campus, we recently had to institute a policy calling for no applause until the end of the program, since the same uncertainty in a smaller group can lead to unfortunate (though often comical) results.

In today’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along world, applause actually comes in many shapes and sizes.

For instance, we have now developed the “golf clap,” applause so polite that it can scarcely be heard—which is the entire point. A botched putt due to loud applause from another green could ruin the Sunday afternoon of untold millions of couchside viewers, so it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

Then there’s the “slow clap,” a novel way of showing that something is not really worthy of applause at all. If a form of applause could be described as ironic (or, at the very least, satirical), that would definitely be it.

Finally, there’s the “crescendo clap,” in which a group of spectators begins to clap slowly and in unison, then picks up the pace and the volume until the beat devolves into a smattering of enthusiastic but unsynchronized applause. This is, among other things, a very fascinating (though subtle) indicator of mob mentality at work, somewhat like “the wave” or the fact that everyone chants “airrrr-ballll” at roughly the same pitch. Somehow, we all know exactly what to do—and when.

Yes, clapping and tanning and even kissing are all strange social customs, yet I think it’s only rarely that we think about when we ever started doing these things and why. In some cases—particularly with the applause, I think—we often end up acting something like lemmings ourselves.

There is probably fascinating research on the subject, which I’ve probably nearly entirely butchered here. Still, I hope you’ve enjoyed considering with me the strangeness of some of our habits as humans.

And the next time you find yourself at a concert, speech, recital, or sporting event, take a moment and look around you when everyone else begins to applaud. Isn’t it strange that everyone does it in almost the same way? Yet who decides when it starts? When it stops?

You may do it almost without thinking, but ask yourself: How do I know what to do?


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