I’ve been reading Arnold Mindell’s book “The Deep Democracy of Open Forums” and in it he mentions that clapping can be used to support one speaker in favour of another – a ‘point-scoring’ system if you like.

So I started thinking about ‘clapping’ – as you do…!

As a society we regard clapping to be an act of appreciation and approval of something we either agree with, or are moved by. Yet, as an action in interpersonal dynamics, clapping may:

  • Trigger different responses for those who do not receive it
  • Be used in power games
  • Give voice to undercurrents in social interactions and settings
  • Communicate dissatisfaction

A social system of reward-punishment

As babies and children we are raised on a system of reward-punishment. If clapping is a sign of ‘good’, what is ‘no clap’? If we are expecting approval, no clap may be regarded as disapproval.

A friends’ one year old, has recently learned her ‘fake smile’ as her parents call it. When I was told about it, I was struck by how early on we learn to seek approval and the masks we develop in order to gain it.

Based on this system of reward and punishment then, clapping is used as a tool in our social interactions and in conflict. While it may be the most natural instinct it is also a learned one – and as such perpetuates the system of punishment and reward with which we are brought up as children. This system shapes and impacts one’s self-esteem from and early age, and in turn self-esteem contributes to conflict and communication.  In a social setting a clap or praise for someone around us, may trigger old wounds and memories of approval and disapproval that may lead us to question our own abilities and worth. 

How then would a negative or positive clap affect it and our reactions?

As a power-game:

Arguments and discussions can escalate through power-games. Used here, clapping can be a sign of a power struggle and construed as a sign of arrogance and a put down. Imagine someone sneering as they clap, perhaps adding, “Well done, you finally did it!” or “well done, that was priceless.”

In such cases a clap can not only raise the heat but also take us off on a different argument in which the original point is lost.

There are also many instances in which claps of dissatisfaction at events and other social milieu, voice the undercurrents in a social setting – such as feelings of frustration and tensions.

To clap or not to clap?

While in South America, I was taught by a man who was proud of his ‘indigenous’ roots that clapping is a ‘western and gringo’ thing and that it breaks the energy, particularly during (shamanic) ceremony. My companions, all of whom were Ecuadorian, were suddenly stumped. “So what do we do, if we can’t clap?” He suggested a vocal sound would be more appropriate and in keeping with the tradition and our surroundings.

I offer this as an example as it is a story that remains with me.

A clap is never ‘simple’ and it carries a lot of messages in its sound; it can be used musically to add rhythm or it can break the flow. And socially, clapping is part of a system of interaction that carries a multitude of permutations.

Given that awareness opens up our choices of response and helps interrupt behavioural patterns, I invite you to consider and observe clapping as part of social interactions.

So next time you are in a public arena, or in your own environment, in which one person receives the accolades, while the other doesn’t, consider what might this do for them, or you?

How has the energy in the room shifted after that clap?

How do you feel; what message does it transmit to you?

When do you use it and why?

I would be grateful for any comments and experiences in the section below!


  1. Joyce Sala says:

    A very interesting angle to a daily gesture! Definitely leaves you thinking!
    Thank you!

  2. Annabel says:

    As a keen tango dancer I often hear Argentine tango music played live, or watch dancers give demonstrations (in relatively small spaces).

    The Argentineans clap, shout out (alle, or esse) during the performance and ‘lean in’ to the performance. We Brits tend to sit back and say nothing, pause for a while at the end and then clap.

    I have heard performers say they were devastated that their best moves were not marked by verbal sounds/appreciation during the performance – whereas we regard it as rude to make a noise during the performance.

    The pause before clapping begins can be an awkward one – since often we are not sure ‘if it is time yet’ and wait.

    The participation/withholding of sound during a performance or after it is a complex once to navigate when we are a mixed group watching the performance – but somehow we find a way – es un tango, after all.

    But it does cause anxiety as we shift from verbal appreciation (I do both now as i think one should try to give appreciation, where it is due, in the form in which the recipient needs it) to clapping. I am not yet bilingual in joy, but I am working on it.