Tag Archives: performance

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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Scattered Fragments and Other Musings

I’m in the process of working up quite a long piece on the complexities of the human-pet relationship as illuminated in a sometimes-trite picture book. It will appear soon. Dammit. But until then, I thought I’d get a few thoughts off my figurative chest and literal scraps of paper that have been waiting quite a while to be made legible, if not logical. None of them have inspired any real burst of verbose or coherent analysis, but they aren’t entirely worthless, either. So here they are for your consideration, fresh from the nearly-discarded notecards and stickie-notes of my car, in all their fragmented glory.

“Best Friends” Necklaces At least a decade ago, there was a(nother? probably) wave of “best friend” merchandise marketed at young girls–ages 9 to 13, say. Things like a set of necklaces that had half a broken heart each, one with the word “best” inscribed on the cheap metal, the other with the word “friends.” To state the obvious, these types of trinkets represent in a very material way the commodification of friendship, not to mention the performance of it. They had the potential to exacerbate the pre-teen drama seemingly inherent in female friendships (and inevitable falling-outs). Choosing to don or eschew a broken heart necklace could be as hurtful or meaningful as “breaking” a real heart or finally making a “real” friend. This commodification and fetishization of necklace and the ideas it represented put volatile meaning to things. But how do you explain all that to a twelve year-old?

Evolution of Art A now-forgotten segment on NPR about some art happening sparked a hastily scribbled note about conceptual art as prioritizing the making rather than the saving of a work of art. Art as process itself. An engaging-with art-making; participatory art. Making something lasting that can be saved or sold is beyond the point. Art as the performance of itself.

Performance vs. Static Identity Another NPR story dealt with the idea of “genius”–that at one point, the word was used in a very different way and that this difference has significant implications. To be general about it, “historically,” one was spoken of as having genius, rather than being a genius. It was a quality external to the self. Now it is a quality part and parcel of the self. This change in meaning seems to jive with quite a few things I’ve been reading lately about the shift from the external performance of personhood to the internal coherence of a static self. The shift to the concept of identity as an internal and fixed aspect of being. The self was not always such a concern–emphasis was placed, rather, on how one upheld the values of one’s community: it was more about service to one’s society than a concern with one’s inner being, which was not necessarily thought to be separate from the outside world or fixed. This shift is dealt with in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles as well as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America. Perhaps it is because both books deal with gender and trace its movement from being located in social performance to its current location in an internal and fixed identity that explains both author’s attention to this overarching ideological change. But to bring it back to the beginning, I think this shift that they both identify illuminates the changing meaning of “genius” with respect to its use. As the ideology of the self evolved into its present state, it became more acceptable/made more sense to use the word “genius” as a quality that one could posses as part of one’s identity. It was no longer some third-party muse that chanced upon the lucky individual, sparking a happy accident of knowledge production or art. (Yet another example of meaning deriving from use. Ling-anth!)

Beating the Dead Horse of the American Dream This is why I get angry and am not so hot for America much of the time: One of our most enduring (yet constantly refuted) national myths is that of the American DreamLand of opportunity for all, life liberty, etc. That it persists is the backdrop of my anger at our constant boundary-making, social policing, and general intolerance of difference. Sure, if we want to play the comparison game, other cultures and nations are “more” oppressive, but because of this myth I’ve been indoctrinated with, I feel we should do better. We should try harder to live up to this (impossible) myth of opportunity–which requires tolerance of difference. Especially in a capitalist society; some concession must be made to temper the inhumane hand of the market so that difference is taken into account. Is valued. Is given the space to create opportunity that looks a little different. We can’t just provide opportunities for those who follow our arbitrary rules. This makes “success” too unattainable. We must do better. Even if the myth is just that. If we keep telling it to ourselves and slamming it down and telling it to ourselves, shouldn’t we try to make it true, if only to stick it to all the cynical authors of the past 100+ years? (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald and Miller.)

Whew. Now to the recycle bin!

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