Hold Your Applause

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is published each month in my newsletter.

Quandary

How do people know how long to clap/applaud at social events?
~Baylee

Anthropological Explanation

Baylee’s question sent me to JSTOR, bastion of academic articles. Unsurprisingly, music journals had a lot to say on this subject, most of it of the hand-wringing variety. (As in, “why, oh, why can’t our stupid audiences clap the way we professional performers think they should?”) But let’s step away from that cacophonous minefield–I’ve collected a few choice gems in the “Miscellany” section at the end–and talk about crowds, social norms, and communication. This discussion focuses on a U.S. cultural context, because that’s what I have the most experience with.

There are different schools of thought about what drives group behavior, some that allow for more individual agency and rationality than others. My attempt to answer this question will employ a mish-mash and I probably won’t provide an adequate literature review to trace their lineage. I’ll be talking about applause in terms of the social situation of a performance, but we can apply a similar analysis to sporting events, speeches, or any situation that involves a person or people set apart from the people whose role in the interaction is primarily observational.

Applause is a form of communication both between audience and performer and among audience members. It can encapsulate several meanings, often at once:

1. Indicating that the performance is over.
2. Demonstrating support of what just concluded.
3. Demonstrating support of the person or people who performed.
4. Indicating a positive emotional or intellectual reaction to the performance.
5. Demonstrating adherence to social expectations of polite behavior.

Let’s unpack that last one. We have been conditioned to behave in certain ways depending on what context we find ourselves in. These are social norms. People who become members of an audience have joined in a ritual that triggers a set of behaviors, one of which is clapping at the conclusion of the performance. In addition, by becoming a member of the audience, people suspend certain individual behaviors in the service of greater group cohesion. Regardless of whether an individual enjoyed a given performance or not, that individuals is likely aware that society expects them to applaud when it is over. To not engage in the group act of applause would be making a strong statement against said performance. Unless an individual has reason to make their negative reaction to the performance publicly known, they are probably going to contribute a few halfhearted claps to the group’s applause at the “proper” moment.

Now that we’ve established the social expectations that generate the group response of applause in the first place, let’s move on to tackle Baylee’s question of how individuals within the group know when to stop clapping. It seems to happen spontaneously, but as we’ve seen from how applause begins, its cessation may also be partly automatic. This question turns on the idea of knowledge, which is a tricky thing to deal with anthropologically. As my professor Anne Lorimer reminded us time and again, “culture is in practice, not just in people’s heads.” So let’s see if we can find what audience members might be thinking in what they are doing when they stop applauding.

“Nowhere has controversy about mental processes been more salient than in theories of crowd behavior.”
Richard A. Berk, ‘A Gaming Approach to Crowd Behavior,” American Sociological Review Vol. 39, No. 3 (June 1974) pp.355-373

In 2013, Royal Society Open Science published research findings that suggested applause spreads among an audience “like a disease,” with people relying on audial cues to drive their individual clap contributions. Other sociological research also takes this “contagion” view of crowd behavior, treating groups of people like mindless herds who merely follow the unidentifiable will of the collective. Of course it’s more subtle and people deserve much more credit. As I outlined above, the meanings of applause and the contexts in which it’s generated depends on people’s awareness–even if they aren’t specifically thinking about it every second–of what behaviors are acceptable and expected of them at any given moment.

As we applaud, we are attuned to the clapping of others in the audience. After a while, someone in the audience will stop clapping. Maybe their hands hurt. Maybe they disliked the performance and were only communicating politeness. Whatever the reason, that one person or handful of people who stop(s) triggers a chain reaction: we become aware, at least subconsciously, that the noise and/or movement around us has reduced, and because we have resigned our individual selves at least in part to the collective personhood of the audience, we conform to the social expectation that we slow our claps, and as a critical mass of people lessen their applause and finally stop, leaving only the stragglers to betray their non-conformity.

[Detour into the Dept. of Speculation]

The duration of applause, especially when you’re contributing to it, can feel instinctual. You stop clapping when everyone else does. Sure, it ebbs a little at the end and there may be a few stray claps, but on the whole audiences tend to synchronize their cessation. How does this happen? Are we telepathic? Sort of. It could be that, like other social norms, we have internalized experiences of the average duration of applause from past performances and are imperfectly replicating those subconscious memories. In a study on the rhetorical forces that influence audience response after political speeches, John Heritage and David Greatbatch noted that “performance factors are found to influence the likelihood of audience response strongly.” This again points to the social norms both governing and encoded within audible forms of communication. The duration of applause might be correlated with the duration of a performance, the fervor with which it was delivered, or the affiliation between audience members and the performer(s).

So it’s not that we necessarily “know” when to stop, or that there are strict parameters that govern the duration of applause, but rather that we collectively decide in the moment how much applause is warranted based on our prior experiential and cultural knowledge of how vigorously and long we’ve applauded at similar events that evoked similar emotional responses. There’s much more nuance and theoretical underpinnings to all this, but I’ve already rambled on long enough without adequately citing sources.

A final thought before we have a chuckle at the moral outrage of early 20th century musicologists: 

It would be interesting to compare the applauding practices of a group of children with that of a group of adults to see whether the children audiences contain more outlying clappers–kids who continue clapping long after the majority has stopped, or those who stop much sooner, or those who choose not to clap at all. Since children are by their very nature not yet fully socialized, I’d bet that there’s much greater variation among the individuals within the audience and between difference audiences.

Miscellany

I can’t not share some of my more amusing findings from these music journal articles. The ones that problematize applause set up a power struggle between the audience and performer/conductor. In the musicologist authors’ estimations, audiences are comprised of uneducated sheeple who should be either domesticated or skinned alive. Behold:

In 1897, a disgruntled patron of the arts wrote the editor of The Musical Times to complain of his fellow audience members’ uncouth propensity to clap before the conclusion of a piece. It seems that the music was too often “marred by a din of applause” before the proper moment. (The editor replied that “the protest of our correspondent is much to be commended.” Snobs gotta stick together.) Western society seems to have gotten the message: rarely do I hear people clap before the end of a classical piece of music–we all must have our eyes glued to the conductor, waiting for them to lower their arms and signal that the music has, indeed, concluded.

“Audiences capable of genuine discrimination are very rare, and in any discussion of them the question of applause has to be faced.” Thomas Russell, The Musical Times Vol. 82, No. 1176 (Feb., 1941), pp. 54-5

There’s an article from a 1925 issue of The Musical Times entitled “The Tyranny of the Audience.” Hear that, people? WE HAVE THE POWER!!!

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Poetic Interlude: Plumeria

plumeria

Once fragrant
Neighborly given
Displayed; humbled
Overwhelming the interior
Scent out; shelved
Literally
No more to figure

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How to Lose a Mattress Sale

An epidemic of introversion threatens the very fabric of our economy. At retail establishments across the land, over-amped sales personnel are charged with accosting unreceptive customers, all for the promised pittance of commission. Pity the retail employee who must cram their square peg sales strategy into the black hole of the introverted customer.  

This unprecedented assault against extroverts has swept the nation, disproportionately affecting sales personnel who work on commission. This injustice cannot stand.  Forget for a moment the larger market forces creating the conditions of their oppression; this battle is best waged on the sales floor, with one-on-one combat. 

Too often sales personnel see the loss of an introvert’s business as defeat. To that I say: THIS IS VICTORY! What I offer is a way forward for our country’s under-appreciated and much-maligned extroverts. Read on, dear sales people, and discover the dawning of a new tomorrow that causes the lost promise of the 1950’s to tremble with jealousy. Continue reading

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Poetic Interlude: Past Particle

A tale from the end of the Universe

The last particle
Torn asunder

Drifted farther

From anything
Before

Shredding

Silent

No companion
To share its dissipation

Not even consciousness
Remained to witness

Ultimate solitude

Preceded nothing


Inspired by this news story from August, 2015.

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Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 

Quandary

Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
Submit your question by May 15 for a chance to win a free book!

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