Why do we clap? A short history

If aliens landed at a lecture they’d be very confused about what’s going on at the end. Why is it we strike our hands together violently to indicate we’re appreciative of what someone did? It’s an odd thing, an arbitrary cultural act that could have been just about anything. Slapping knees, howling, singing a song, all could have been the tradition just as easily as clapping.

In an article in Esquire, Elwyn Simons, head of Duke University’s Division of Fossil Primates, says “We don’t know know how far back it goes… but you don’t find primates doing it unless they’ve been taught to do it. They do not clap hands in the wild. It’s not to applaud something. It’s because they’re frightened or want to call attention to food”.

Jay Fisher, a professor at Yale University, dates the custom to the 3rd century BC, where (Greek?) plays ended with a request, plaudite, for the audience to clap. Wikipedia offers some tidbits from ancient Rome, likely one of the first places where clapping as a cultural phenomenon was recorded.

Various cultures throughout history have had alternatives to clapping. The Romans, and hipsters in the 60s, snapped their fingers. I know, first hand, that Bruce Springsteen fans yell “Bruuuuuce” at his concerts, which to the uninitiated, sounds exactly like people booing.

I also find it interesting, when I’m in the audience, to try and be the first person to clap. Often there’s silence when performances, or lectures, end, and whoever claps first can always start a good number of people clapping. It’s a strange phenomenon. Almost as strange as standing ovations.

6 Responses to “Why do we clap? A short history”

  1. Scott

    Gert-Jan: Yes, 3rd century B.C. The article has it right but I missed it, fixed.

    I’ll check out that link – thanks!

  2. Gert-Jan

    Checked out the link I posted myself now. I feel no desire to clap, I must admit. Too professorial perhaps for Sunday morning.

  3. Ed Andriessen

    It’s also interesting how the sound level of clapping signals the performer/presenter whether or not the audience appreciated the performance.

    Ever been to a Toastmasters meeting? Everyone claps enthusiastically whenever anyone speaks. This helps people gain confidence and overcome the fear of public speaking.

    I’ve also been to venues where clapping was tepid or non existent. Ouch, painful (especially when you’re the presenter).



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