Why Do Some Passengers Clap When the Plane Lands?

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.

September 25, 2019
Illustrated gif in hues of blue, orange, yellow and burgundy of clapping hands

As a result, anti–clappers may feel compelled to clap against their better judgment. “Applauding sends a signal that we are impressed,” says Gary Lupyan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and amateur pilot. “Given the ordinary nature of modern plane landings, though, one can imagine that hearing others clap creates a kind of conflict: You as a non–clapper think nothing impressive happened, and then you hear people clapping and have to re–evaluate whether you’re wrong.”

In other words, putting your hands together may be easier than not.

As Los Angeles–based Canadian comedian and vocal anti–applauder Jon Schabl explains, when he flies, “I have to make a mental note not to instinctively clap.” And therein lies the question: Are you clapping because you approve, or are you clapping because of the person next to you?



Customary Applause


The practice of putting our hands together may be universal, but it’s done differently from place to place.

  1. Ceremonial clapping In Japan, tejime is the tradition of rhythmically clapping to celebrate the end of an event or business deal. The custom is performed at the stock exchange, festivals or even to signal the end of a party. There are variations depending on the situation, but the most common pattern is ippon–jime, which involves three percussive claps, repeated three times and followed by a single clap.

  2. Synchronized clapping The phenomenon of clapping in unison is a common expression of high regard from audiences in Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania. Often accompanied by a standing ovation, scattered audience applause will reach a point of synchronization that lasts for approximately 10 or 15 seconds, according to some studies.

  3. Viking clapping Despite the historical heft in its name – it’s also known as the Viking Thunder Clap or volcano clap – this Icelandic soccer chant only took off at Euro 2016, and likely traces its roots to Scotland, by way of the Hollywood film 300. Fans hold their arms overhead in a V and bring them together with a chanted “huh” after an accelerating two–drum beat.