« Oh dear! what can the matter be? | Main | 106 - Law Enforcing »

Pins And Needles: Hands, Clapping

...The psychology of applause has turned out to be a whole lot more interesting to me than the philosophy of applause, which, if I recall my student days, fixates on the sound of one hand clapping...

After reading Gloria MacKay's deliciously entertaining article you will never again be able to clap your hands without thinking about what you are doing.

Do children still chant If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands? If you really want to show it … go ahead, clap your hands … show them how. Kids don’t know the half of it.

The ins and outs of hand clapping is not easy to grasp: the obligatory, the heartfelt, the mindless; indoors and out; sitting and standing; even while squeezing down the aisle one needs technique. At the end of the evening, as I was virtually upside down groping for my program and purse, I had difficulty keeping my hands moving like everyone else, but I tried. When in Rome, clap.

Finally, I caught on to the science of applause: the statistics, control groups, hypotheses, reports and, hands on observation. Sociologists study cultural clapping; historians research the history of cultural clapping; musicologists focus on folk music and clapping; physicists extrapolate formulas and apply them to synchronized chapping. I had no idea an audience can choose whether to clap together or clap separately. Nor did I grasp the flip side: performers tweaking an audience response simply by how they leave the stage. Ambiguous nods and tentative strides evoke enough applause to justify an encore; on the other hand, a determined hoisting of instruments and lockstep withdrawal elicits a “thanks for the memories” response as the audience moves on.

The psychology of applause has turned out to be a whole lot more interesting to me than the philosophy of applause, which, if I recall my student days, fixates on the sound of one hand clapping. I was middle-aged before I learned that — sorry, kids — clapping is not always happy.

An article by a Professor Steven Connor explains, “There are few actions as acidly derisive as the slow hand clap … that ominous series of empty clacks, with gaping silences between them. The warmly engulfing garment of sound produced by applause is thereby rent and emaciated.” Finally I understood former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s haggard appearance after he spoke to his Parliament in support of America’s position on Iraq.

Social scientists research the clapping community in the same way they compare religions, governments, families and fashion. An audience of Romanians, for instance, clap differently than the way we do it in America. Both countries start off with a spontaneous burst of appreciation, but Romanians are apt to switch into synchronized clapping, as stylized a technique as synchronized swimming, but apparently requiring no practice at all. Why the difference? Off went the physicists to Romania to check it out. What they heard was fast clapping at first, then a helter-skelter mix somewhere between four and five claps a second. Next, the audience, together, slows down to half that rate, adjusting their clapping to fit with those around them. After fifteen seconds the claps speed up. It was noted this pattern can go on for several minutes until the audience gets an encore or goes home.

In the language of physics, hands clapping follow the same mathematical rules as fireflies flashing, crickets chirping, and heart cells beating, with or without pacemakers. Physicists regard all of these — hands, hearts and bugs — as collections of oscillators coupled to one another like pendulums swinging together on a string. Under the right conditions these pendulums become synchronized, and apparently, so do our hands. (If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it you have to pay attention to your math.)

At the University of Washington we have the Wave, the Husky contribution to the study of synchronization. The Wave can be traced back to Husky Stadium on October 31,1981 in the third quarter of a football game against Stanford. Cheerleaders megaphoned and body-languaged Husky rooters into creating a human wave rolling around and around the stands until every fan visible was standing, waving, and cheering.It was probably no surprise to physicists that the Huskies scored 28 consecutive points and won the game 42-31.

But I digress. The history of hand clapping is not as detailed. We do know the ancient Romans expressed their pleasure with finger snapping, flat palm clapping, and toga flapping, and when emperor Nero acted, his performances were greeted by five thousand flag waving soldiers, and in “The Franklin Tale” of his Canterbury Tales Chaucer says, “When this Maister … Saugh it was tyme he clapte hise handes” and it would not surprise me if our kids are already texting the sound of one hand clapping.



Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.