Why Are We Clapping? - A History of Applause

  • 19 avril 2018
  • Les exclus de Theatre in Paris
  • Amanda Mehtala


Some have said that clapping is like high-fiving yourself in a positive response to something that someone else has done. Clapping is the most common sound that we, as humans, use without our voice chords. We do it as a social gesture to show approval and admiration in groups, crowds, or by ourselves, and more so in the setting of being presented with something like a show or performance. But what is the reason behind why we clap? Did you know that the average speed of our claps ranges from 2.5-5 claps per second? The meaning of clapping is recognized through every culture in the world, and is one of the most universal means of communication. Let’s take a look at the history of applause.

The action of clapping is actually a quite primitive one, initially being used in response to being aroused. In Western etiquette, a study has shown that the clap of an individual actually has very little to do with that individual’s personal opinion of the quality of the performance. It has more to do with the feeling of belonging in the group that someone has just experienced something with. Haven’t you ever heard someone say that they’re “just clapping to be polite”? Or when you applaud because everyone else is clapping, even if you’re not really sure what’s going on yourself? Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone!

In comparison to vocalizing approval through speech, clapping is easier, louder, and more anonymous especially in crowds. You can’t tell much about a person through their clap, like whether they’re male or female, or where they’re from. Clapping is even considered more democratic, since stomping your feet can be too disruptive, and not everyone can snap their fingers. Taking it way back to 6th century BC, lawmaker Kleisthénes of Athens made it so that audiences would have to clap in approval of their leader, since there were too many people to meet individually. Through this came the “applause”, the unified voices of all these people in the form of clapping together in admiration. A few hundred years later, in the 4th century BC came the claquer. A claquer was a person who was hired by theaters and shows to clap, cry, or laugh at the right moments in order to influence the audience’s reactions. In the 4th century Athens, competition was fierce between comedians, and claquers became a common way to sway the decision of the judges and be awarded best performance. In the Roman Empire, the practice of using applause to influence was applied to politics, and claquers were found in both courts of law and private art demonstrations. Roman emperor Nero even established a school of applause with a claque of thousands of knights and soldiers following his concert tours!

people clapping history applause

Clapping history has a unique role in France and French venues as well. In 18th century France, the claque had a strong presence as an organised body of professional applauders and influencers. Continually used in theatres to influence audiences, with the claquers often paid by the production and actors of a play in free tickets. The whole affair was quite organized, with certain claquers assigned to laugh loudly during comedic portions, others to shed a tear for a melancholic performance, and even claquers designated to comment their appreciation of a play or speech to fellow audience-members!

Nowadays, however, the days of claquers is over and all you’ll find in Parisian playhouses is bonafide applause. We do still find some traces, the remnants of the claquers are now limited to television show sets and radio programs, in the form of applause symbols to tell the audience when they should be clapping, or even canned clapping and laughter.

taraji clapping
leo dicaprio clapping

It is interesting to note as well that there are appropriate times and places for every applause. It is considered perfectly normal to applaud a politician as he takes the stage before he even gives a speech, as a sign of approval and in recognition of past accomplishments. In a religious setting, however, applauding is very rarely heard. While during a play it would be deemed rude to begin applauding in the middle of the performance, one often hears clapping throughout an opera in appreciation for a particularly difficult piece of music. Applause can even evolve into higher gestures of approval, standing ovation anyone?

So, it can be said that clapping has now evolved into an expectation and standard of behavior. It’s no longer a biological or sociological reaction, like it once was in primitive times, nor is it any longer used by private performance directors and political figures as a means to influence. The act of applause and clapping along with other people following a performance of any kind, has become a social norm with a long list of historical influences. Interesting how what was once used as a political coy is now the widespread means of demonstrating appreciation!

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