Have you ever wondered why we show our approval with applause in some situations but not others? For example, a little symbolic clapping is traditional at the end of a ballet class. It is decidedly not traditional at the end of an academic class (unless it's the last class of a course, in which case there may be applause). It's a curious phenomenon. In his weekly article in Diario Sur, Pedro Aparicio has some interesting observations on the growing mania for applause in contemporary Spanish culture. (He main topic is his need for the antidotal value of Emile Cioran's aphorisms.) Always witty, don Pedro describes Spain today as one immense ovation. There is a lot of truth to this: Spaniards applaud in church, in cemeteries, and they put an end to "moments of silence," often too soon, with enthusiastic applause. ("Moment of silence" in Spain, one of the very noisiest countries in the world, is a misnomer, a seemingly impossible abstraction. On the other hand, at least Spanish performers don't have that awful habit, often on display here, of asking for applause. I've observed this on numerous occasions during lectures and other kinds of performances. Earn it!)

In the U.S we are a little more restrained with applause. Recently I performed a fascinating experiment. A recent performance of The Nutcracker by the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet at Hershey Theatre included a pre-event talk by noted musicologist Truman Bullard. The topic was Tchaikovsky's score, but he spoke generally about the relationship between the music and choreography, between musician and dancer. He was accompanied by CPYB executive director Alan Hineline and associate artistic director Darla Hoover. Just to add a little levity to the session, I asked about the moment in the ballet when the Christmas tree magically grows. And grows and grows! I wanted to know if they thought it was appropriate for the audience to applaud. (I always feel a tremendous urge to clap when the music crescendos and the tree reaches its maximum splendor, but the audiences here rarely respond.) Darla Hoover jumped right in: oh yes! By all means applaud. And that's just what I did: when the moment came I applauded enthusiastically and the whole theater immediately followed my lead. Easy! Fun! For the evening performance the same thing. Then, during the Sunday show I decided not to applaud. Silence. And the tree did seem to me to offer a slight frown for that lack of enthusiasm. I guess most people just like to fall into applause without having to initiate it.

Applause is a wonderful thing, but indiscriminate, inauthentic applause is unfortunate, even grotesque and can make one feel, as the Spaniards would say, "second hand shame." Let's end this post like this.


  1. Mark, How do you feel about people who clap for themselves? I've always thought it looks incorrect, and causes me to feel that "second hand shame." For me, it falls into the same category as the rarely followed etiquette rule that you don't drink when you are the person being toasted. I only learned this rule in Britain and am not sure if Americans even follow it. I think the same should apply to clapping. Receive the applause with a smile or nod or whatever is appropriate, but to return the clapping is like saying "to you, too" when someone wishes you happy birthday. But clapping for the tree- absolutely! Thanks for leading the way. Your niece, Abby

  2. Abby, thanks for the interesting toast analogy. I agree, if you are the object of the toast, better not to lift that glass. Yes, I've noticed in recent years how people on a stage who are being applauded often participate in the clapping. Bad form! (Sometimes when in a clearing deep in the woods I applaud the sky. The trees join in.)