Using a silent visual applause by flapping one's hands instead of clapping is used by several communities: some deaf communities, some autistic communities and some buddhist communities. It would appear that autistic communities borrowed it from ASL. According to Visual applause: Where did it come from? This sign came to ASL from LSF in 1985. At least the buddhism tradition of vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh also uses the visual applause instead of clapping.

What is the origin of visual applause in these communities, in particular in LSF community?

Several expressions are used to describe this sign. Here are a few I encountered:

  • deaf applause

  • visual applause

  • silent applause

  • flap, don't clap (in autistic communities)

  • flapplause (in a post by an autistic)

  • twinkles (by the Occupy movement)


I don't have any sources to reference here, but it seems completely logical to me. The purpose of applause, in either mode, is to participate in making “noise” to signify approval (or some other contextually apparent emotion).

Aurally, the randomness of a large audience clapping creates a sonic footprint similar to white noise.

Visually, the randomness of a large audience fluttering their hands is similar: our brains are attuned to movement, and the constant random shifting creates the same basic effect as something like sequined fabric, or television static.

The same effect could be achieved through other means, like standing up and down, or waving one's arms dramatically, but hand-fluttering is comparatively much more low energy, especially important for sustained applause. This is true for aural applause as well: sure, you can shout to show excitement, and people frequently do in addition to applause, but you'll run out of breath much more quickly than your hands become tired.

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1 medal, 2 sides

I guess one would need to differentiate between 2 types of social semantic contexts, regarding the same visual applauding sign:

Visual waving or other clapping-reminiscent oscillating hand-movements,

  • semantically referring to (as in: via a variant, alluding culturally to) the loud clap ✋.
  • not referring to the loud clap ✋.

As, I think, today it's certainly impossible to exactly pin down the date at which this behavior (idem with loud clapping: one can only point to first written descriptions, and further more: I'd guess this behavior is much older than the writing system) arose; I will try to embed its origin in the light of a parallel evolution:

A parallel with a structural large-scale evolution

Silent applause might actually, but that is of course mere speculative, have a similar origin as the decline of homicide (and violence in general); since it can be viewed in the light of (and as the extrapolating continuation thereof) the decline of physical violence which might be coupled with the development of loud clapping ✋(and in the next stage then perhaps: silent applause ✋).

First: let's take the following model as a mainframe, characteristic of violent behavior (amongst others).

It is to be supposed that clapping among humans may have evolved from the action of slapping and cuffing the body, often accompanied by jumping and stamping, which is characteristic of primates in states of excitement. (source: Steven Connor)

Then, one can assume primates could have used the clapping ✋, as a more symbolic way of representing or channeling this anger or frustration.

Clapping ✋the hands together has several advantages over slapping the body. First of all, it produces a much more emphatic, consistent and easily controllable sound. (source: Steven Connor)

Perhaps the next step could then be silent visual-only clapping ✋?

Now, the above mentioned thought is about clapping, but it isn't about applause. But it is also imaginable that this decline of anger, frustration and adrenaline-outbursts is coupled with a decline of the outbursts at the sympathetic / applauding side of mankind; both inherent and measurable physiologically, as also measurable sociologically in less exuberant applauding behavior. Thus a decline of general (emotionally-induced or -copuled) physical behavior (or at least the smearing out of the peaks of its outbursts).

The large-scale decline of violence, homicide and war is documented in

  • Steven Pinker, The better angels of our nature. Why violence has declined.

I'll offer a small piece of review from an article in the NYT by the famous professor of bioethics Peter Singer (source: Peter Singer, Is violence history, nytimes.com, 6/10/2011), discussing this book of Steven Pinker, one of today's most famous linguistic psychologist, which also talks about a change (i.c. a difference between the north and the south) in physiological reactions to insults; and a reference to Norbert Elias' pacification process. It also contains an empirical verification of the hypothesis of Thomas Hobbes classic contract theory book Leviathan:

Pinker begins with studies of the causes of death in different eras and peoples. Some studies are based on skeletons found at archaeological sites; averaging their results suggests that 15 percent of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death. In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods — the 17th century and the first half of the 20th —­ deaths in war were around 3 percent. The data vindicates Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been. Pinker calls this the “pacification process.”

It’s not only deaths in war, but murder, too, that is declining over the long term. Even those tribal peoples extolled by anthropologists as especially “gentle,” like the Semai of Malaysia, the Kung of the Kalahari and the Central Arctic Inuit, turn out to have murder rates that are, relative to population, comparable to those of Detroit. In Europe, your chance of being murdered is now less than one-tenth, and in some countries only one-fiftieth, of what it would have been if you had lived 500 years ago. American rates, too, have fallen steeply over the past two or three centuries. Pinker sees this decline as part of the “civilizing process,” a term he borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias, who attributes it to the consolidation of the power of the state above feudal loyalties, and to the effect of the spread of commerce. (Consistent with this view, Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.)

Cautious preliminary discussion

From this small glance, I would accept the confirmation of the decline of violence by Steven Pinker. However, I haven't yet found empirical verification of the guess that not only physical violence; thus physical exuberant behavior coupled with it; but also applauding behavior has declined in exuberant appearance (and perhaps the outbursts of the hormone-coupled emotions associated with it).

Primates, I imagine, can also applaud (I'd guess very exuberantly). But they can not clap ✋(unless they are thought by humans).

Elwyn Simons (specialist in primate paleontology & morphology and primate biology; researcher of anthropoid origins and evolution) (source: www.esquire.com):

"We don't know how far back it goes, not without a time machine. Cavemen and human ancestors — we don't know whether they clapped hands or not. But you don't find primates doing it unless they've been taught to do it. They do clap hands in the wild. It's not to applaud something; it's because they're frightened or want to call attention to food.

It is imaginable that clapping is a more complex task for them (since it is less exuberant) and silent applause ✋perhaps even more so.

  • So then perhaps humanity's emotions are also subjected to entropic laws?

If someone could offer me a reference to such hypotheses (or an empirical validation or contra-indication), it would be welcome.

For now, I'll reference to Wikipedia, giving the general picture of habitus in general and its possible causes, via Norbert Elias' The civilizing process:

• The first volume, The history of manners, traces the historical developments of the European habitus, or "second nature," the particular individual psychic structures molded by social attitudes.

• The second volume, State formation and civilization, looks into the causes of these processes and finds them in the increasingly centralized Early Modern state and the increasingly differentiated and interconnected web of society.

Should we applaud this? Perhaps we should, silently. ☺

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