Thursday, March 27, 2003

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Yesterday, we had a company meeting at work.  Because our company has divisions all over the world — North America, Europe, India, Japan, etc. — these meetings are done with video conferencing.  And that works just fine.  Of course, meeting like these bring one person after another up on the stage: the CEO, the CFO, the head of Human Resources, an important customer, and so on, each to give their little portion of the meeting.  They come on the stage, the music swells, and everyone applauds.

Why?  No, not why do people applaud, but why does everyone applaud?  Why do the people at remote sites, receiving a video feed from the main site but without one going the other direction, bother to applaud?

There seem to be three reasons why people applaud:

  • To give direct recognition to someone, to stroke their ego.  “I’m happy, and I want you to know it.”  The people at remote sites aren’t doing that with their applause (or at least not successfully!).
  • To let the people around you know that you are giving recognition.  “I’m happy and I want everyone to know it.”  This probably comes in two flavors: normal and peer pressure, the latter being “I’m happy and I want you to (feel compelled to) be happy, too.”
  • Because we are supposed to.  Because we’ve been trained to.
The second of these comes up on occasion.  I’ve been to a couple films in the past few years where the audience applauded after the film.  Obviously, there was no one on the receiving end of that recognition, but after so thoroughly enjoying the film, it felt like the right thing to do.

This last one is what was really going on in the company meeting.  At our site, my guess is that about 2/3 of the people clapped at all the expected, standard moments; the rest of us typically did not, perhaps being aware of the lack of real purpose to the clapping.  But even then, I found myself occasionally making clapping actions — often with one hand against my shirt or jeans.  I couldn’t help myself, and that bothered me; this sort of herd behavior is so ingrained into our society that even when we’re aware of it, we can’t stop it from happening.

I’ve noticed it before this meeting, of course.  The most significant example, I think, is the standing ovation. We have to see what is happening, we have to be heard, we have to be herd.  And thus when someone else stands up to applaud at the end of a performance, even one we didn’t think was that special, we end up doing so as well, because if we don’t, everyone around us knows that we aren’t being good sheep, er, audience members.

A parallel circumstance is the television laugh track.  These laugh tracks are added to sitcoms on television; we are supposed to think they are the responses of studio audiences — and there may be some of that in the mix at times — but with a close listen to many of them, you can tell that someone has a knob and they are turning up and down the volume of the laughter.  This becomes particularly evident when the laughter goes way up on a line where you end up wondering what was so funny about that bit of dialogue.  The use of these laugh tracks has become so ingrained over the years that we as the audience have come to depend on them to tell us when something is “funny”; with a laugh track, we’ll laugh at anything, but without one, we don’t know what to think.

Remember the final episode of Ellen, a parody documentary look back at her career as though it had spanned 50 years?  (My favorite bit was the animated show, Ellen and the Harlem Globetrotters in Outer Space!)  They intentionally left the laugh track off of that episode.  I remember talking to people over the next couple days: some thought it was hilarious, some thought it wasn’t funny at all, and at least one person commented to me that she was confused through the entire episode, that she didn’t know what was supposed to be funny and what was supposed to be serious.

[Weblog title reference: From the Zen koan, “What is the Sound of the Single Hand?”]

Updated on October 21, 2003

Updated on July 6, 2010
Added and corrected links.

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