Clapping is a curious ritual. As far as historians can tell, we’ve been slapping our palms together as a sign of approval for millennia. For the most part, the gesture is universally practised and understood. A performance that ends without hands clapping is awkward. Breaking the noise–o–meter at a sporting event with thunderous applause is thrilling. But clapping in other contexts can be controversial. For instance, what about giving a waiter a hand, figuratively, after they’ve dropped a glass? Then there’s applauding as the credits roll in a movie theatre. But perhaps most contentious of all is the custom of clapping when an airplane lands.
In an online poll of 39,954 people conducted by BuzzFeed, only 13 percent of participants admit to cabin clapping. The other 87 percent hold their applause, and judging by the poll’s comments, they also abhor the practice. Why the strong reaction? Contagion might have something to do with it. From childhood onward, we’re hardwired to clap on command. According to a recent study on the dynamics of applause, hearing claps is all it takes for our knee–jerk reactions to kick in. Other collective responses, like booing, require a certain threshold of booers for others to join in the heckling. Applause, on the other hand, is pretty much automatic. But still, the more clappers, the more clapping there will be.