Category Archives: Sweeping Generalizations


Truly the Thursday of months.


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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.


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

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.


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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Filed under Check This Out!, Contemporary, Historical, Sweeping Generalizations, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Unpopular Opinion: Freelancers’ Rhetorical Inconsistency between Paying and Getting Paid for Services

Contently’s “The Freelancer” published an article by Yael Grauer today entitled 5 Free Alternatives to Must-Have Freelance Tools. Being relatively new to freelance writing, I read it with great interest, and appreciated Grauer’s helpful breakdown of the pros and cons of various software options. But the underlying conceit of the article (money-saving tips!) is a familiar one, and when contrasted with another common refrain among freelancers (F-you; pay me!), it left me with a nagging feeling that there’s a growing cognitive dissonance that we should address.

While advocating that “freelancing isn’t free,” freelancers as a group persist in searching for free alternatives to the tools critical to doing business. This is characteristic of a prevailing, individualistic attitude among freelancers when it comes to compensation: we’re all looking out for number one and are encouraging each other to do so. This individualism is borne out of necessity. After all, we are our best (and often only) advocates as self-employed individuals. But it can lead to a perpetuation of the very inequitable economic system we’re so often fighting.

After all, many of our would-be employers share our mindset: How can I save money and increase my profit margin? No wonder every freelancer has a story (or five hundred) about dismal rates on offer. If we expect to be paid fairly for our services, we should also be willing to pay others fairly for their services. When we seek out free alternatives, we encourage a system that undervalues labor in the pursuit of cheaper consumer products. By imposing one set of standards on ourselves and a diametrically opposed set of standards on others, we simply transfer the exploitation.

When we advocate for decent compensation for our freelance services, and at the same time look for ways to avoid paying for services and products that allow us to run our businesses, we’re living a double-standard. Don’t get me wrong–human beings are not required to have coherent worldviews. We are, all of us, ideological hypocrites in some way or another. But if we, as a loose collection of workers, are trying to create a better working environment, we should consider economic consequences beyond those that affect us personally. We can’t just argue against our own exploitation.

Our rhetoric, which reflects our aspirations as a class of freelance workers, must extend its horizon if we intend to change the world for the better. If our goal is to make working conditions more equitable, then we might have to re-frame some of our personal spending decisions to reflect that worldview. It’s all connected, after all. Raising our prices raises the operating costs of the businesses we contract with, and on and on it turns.

In the same way that I have to stop myself from grumbling about the $4 difference in price between Trader Joe’s peanut butter and that of my local co-op’s, I have to remind myself that the services and software needed to succeed in freelancing are worth the investment. In the case of the peanut butter, I remind myself that Trader Joe’s has low prices in part because they source products from suppliers who exploit their workers, while the co-op’s peanut butter is produced by a workers cooperative. We have to make concessions somewhere, whether it be in our own lives or those of others. Someone always pays.

It’s obvious why our decisions about what software and peanut butter to buy are made on the individual scale. Many (most?) freelancers can’t afford to not seek out free or cheaper alternatives to the tools they need to do business. (Yes, I consider peanut butter an essential part of my operation.) My argument that freelancers should consider walking back our predilection for touting the virtues of free services butts up against the stark realities of America’s growing economic underclass, not to mention discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and all marginalized identities.

I get that consumer decisions are often made completely within the context of an individual’s personal economy. Many short term issues cannot afford the luxury of long-term considerations. As participants, willing or not, in capitalism, we are all of us looking for ways to maximize our profits, but we often do so at the expense of even less-fortunate people. When we look for ways around paying, we are usually bringing more advertising into the world, becoming products ourselves, or exploiting the labor of other people. One way to break this cycle is to take a look at how we value labor and commit to providing fair compensation for it.

To take it back to The Freelancer article, it takes time and talent to code software and maintain it. If we can afford to do so, we should be willing to pay for that. At the very least, our conversations about what it costs to run our individual businesses should take into consideration that the advocacy we’re engaged in on behalf of ourselves is often just as applicable to many of the people whose labor contributes to the products and services we’d prefer to get on the cheap.

Now, companies have different business models and various revenue strategies. That much is apparent from The Freelancer article, as many of the software products Grauer reviews have a sliding scale pricing structure. And I’m not saying large tech companies couldn’t stand to lower their prices, break news to investors that they might have to wait another year to remodel their fourth vacation home, and come up with business models that don’t exploit workers or overcharge consumers. Instead, I’m suggesting that, whenever it’s economically feasible, we consider the real cost of labor when we make decisions about what a service or product is worth. And that we acknowledge the ways in which our prevailing mantras (F-you-pay-me, and I-want-to-save-money) are at odds with one another.

It’s entirely possible that these competing arguments aren’t actually in direct opposition. They’re happening on different scales, after all, one personal and the other systemic. My concern is that the individual decisions we make add up; together they have the power to either perpetuate economic inequality or help to remedy it. Because wanting free services while expecting to be paid well for our own is unsustainable. Something’s gotta give. When those of us who are able to make the choice to spend more money for a service that was ethically produced, that tips the scales in the right direction. A direction that benefits our campaign to communicate the true worth of freelance work.

So in addition to providing helpful resources about how freelancers can save money, and encouraging us to advocate for fair compensation, perhaps some of our collective energy could be turned toward interrupting and reordering the exploitative system that our thrifty individual economic decisions perpetuate. Unions and co-ops are both useful dismantling tools; our everyday rhetoric around personal economies can shift to align with our valuation of equitable compensation to find common ground with and encompass the workers we rely on for quality products–digital or physical.


Filed under Contemporary, Sweeping Generalizations

Arbitrary Meditation: 5 Years of Contempt

Monday marked 5 years since this blog’s “Hello, World” post.

My impulse to comment upon this anniversary was followed by a feeling that such comment is a conditioned response to the cultural tendency to endow certain numbers with significance, especially when related to anniversaries.

Numbers ending in 5 or 0 are somehow more worth noting than those ending in, say, 2 or 8. This is, of course, due in part to our reliance on a base 10 number system, but there must be more to it than that.

We want to remember, but only at intervals. To remember more often becomes burdensome, unremarkable, and produces diminishing returns of significance.

So today I embrace my cultural predilection to marvel that five years have passed since taking this project live. Five years of fluctuating productivity and cultural inquiry and complaining and hoping for a more equitable society. Five years of holding on to the spark that flung me into academic bliss.

We’ll see if this blog has five more years in it, and what those years might contain.

Thank you for reading.

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A Case for Applied Anthropology: Let’s Get Personal

In honor of the first National Anthropology Day, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and write something anthro-related. Or rather, type something anthro-related that I scribbled down in a tiny notebook nearly 2 years ago. 

Imagine, if you will, that it is spring 2013. I’m headed back from the first of a two-day conference of California Cooperatives. I’m neck-deep in a sustained effort to start a community-owned grocery store. I’ve just landed a dream job working with and for people two generations ahead of me at a local non-profit.

My days of suffering through thankless customer service jobs are over. I’m high on collective action. I’m still livid about my graduate school experiences & failures. All these feeling coalesced in a frenzy of brain-waves. The following are the thoughts I rushed to get on paper every which-way as I metroed back from the church basement in Los Angeles where the conference had holed up, ravenous for the life I was experiencing as well as a proper dinner.
Applied anthropology gets a bad rap. Partly for fair reasons, but I’m here to talk about things we don’t think of when those who have the luxury of working the ivory tower use the term pejoratively.

Full disclosure: I am making this case partly as a way to defend the work I do as a natural and positive way to use my academic training.

I consider the work I do to be applied anthropology. Not this blog, which is armchair anth to a fault, but my real-world work. I have the great fortune of being involved in the following projects:

  • At a local history museum, I’m collecting and curating personal memories as part of a virtual exhibit of community stories. Last year, I re-wrote a docent training manual to make room for those groups discursively erased from dominant historical narratives.
  • I am contributing to the start-up phase of a food co-op.
  • I’m working for a non-profit that creates a support network enabling people to stay in their communities of choice as they age.
One of these projects pays me, but I spend arguably more time on the volunteer projects. All of them are local and community-oriented to some degree. And in everything I do for them, I apply my anthropological lens. My training informs my work.

I use the tools and perspectives of cultural and linguistic anthropology to navigate all of this work. I don’t consider this “selling out,” and while it may be an impure form, I do not see it as a bad thing that I’m using the knowledge I and others (have) produce(d) to do very real things. To effect the type of social change we anthros always seem to be advocating for.

I suppose that makes me an activist anthro–another pejorative term. I’m working with folks to address and solve the social problems that anthropologists are so good at identifying. There may well be harm in this endeavor, but there is also a great deal of good.

For example, I use linguistic anthropology for good, not evil. Yes, I’m referring to marketing, but this is marketing for a better future! I haven’t sold out to a corporation, here (unless you count the food co-op). I’m taking the collective will of the people and packaging it for even more people. “Selling” folks on the very ideas they helped to create.

But that’s not what people mean when they snark at those of us who aren’t masochistic enough to be in a PhD program. I admit that I don’t have the temperament to hack it. I’m not into feeling overwhelmed and mentally inferior. I’d much rather be fulfilled, using my skills to engage with my local community and make it a better place.


Collective production of paper mache’ floats trafficking in mixed metaphors totally makes the world a better place.


All of these are reasons why I like the CCC’s better than the AAA’s. There’s a commitment to putting theory into practice. Turning idealism into action and ideology into reality at a grassroots level. Joining pragmatism with idealism to forge unstoppable forces for good in the world!

Besides, if we sequester ourselves in the ivory tower, if we don’t retain ownership of the knowledge we’ve produced, it has a higher risk of being co-opted and used for evil, rather than the good we intend. There’s nothing shameful in seeing something through, in applying theory to practice.

What’s the point of research if it doesn’t have real-world implications? And who are we if we don’t see the value in implementing those implications of our research?

Instead, let’s embrace the practical applications of our research. Let’s retain ownership–sharing the burden, to be sure, with those who have the experience and power to implement our ideas. Not just handing it off, but sticking around to be active participants. Taking action!

In the two years since this breathless tirade against academia for poo-poo-ing applied anthropology, I’ve mellowed a bit. My involvement in the museum and the co-op has lessened, and my work in the non-profit world, while still rewarding, is definitely work. I’m not quite as bitter about my negative experiences in graduate school, and instead enjoy gazing through nostalgia-tinted glasses at the wonderful undergraduate experiences that drew me to anthropology in the first place.

There is peace. There is still action. The museum endures. The co-op is open, now, thanks to the efforts of many talented people. There is still a case for applied anthropology.


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