Political speeches weren’t always about vocal audience reaction and applause. Now, however, one of the main ways that we show our appreciation and approval is with applause. Speeches are written with deliberate pauses to give the audience the opportunity to applaud partway along.
President Obama can hardly finish a sentence without the crowd breaking into applause. He can’t even blow his nose in public without being applauded for it. In fact, we often measure the success of a speaker by the round of applause that they receive at the end of their speech. The media jumps on it because it is such a tangible indicator of how the audience feels.
Applause is visible in other areas of life as well. When there’s turbulence in the air and the pilot of a plane manages to land it safely, the passengers will show their gratitude with applause. For long-anticipated movies, the hype that surrounds the film often leads to applause at the end of it (though this usually pertains only to opening-night showings at a movie theatre). Applause at the end of a stage theatre production is always expected, so to show even more appreciation, people do a standing ovation for the actors bowing on stage. Even this, however, has become increasingly more common, because of our habit of applauding over minute events.
One of the problems with applause is that it is used so frequently. The meaning of it has changed. It is expected; it is almost mandatory. In our society, if there is no applause, then something has gone seriously wrong with the rhetorician’s speech or performance. Sometimes, for example if an actor on stage forgets their lines, the audience sympathizes so much with the humiliation that the actor must be feeling that they applaud even louder to compensate. Thus it loses its “rewarding” aspect.
Applause is loud and easy to do. All it takes is the simple act of pressing one’s hands together with some measure of force and speed (though even a considerable amount of force and speed are not necessary, especially if there is a very large crowd of people). It’s a way for the audience to give back to the performer: applause signals agreements and support. It is interesting, then, to consider why we applaud when the performer clearly cannot see or hear us, such as in the movie theatre. In this case, we are not applauding for the performer. Instead, we are either applauding to assert our own position so that others can see what we think of the performance, or we applaud to show that we are a part of the appreciative group, when everyone around us is applauding.
It is rare that we will be in a group of people with everyone else applauding and we are not. The pressure causes us to start clapping, too. If we don’t clap, everyone wonders why we are not appreciating the same thing that they are. Because of this, applause is also an automatic response of our society. It is a way to identify with the group so that we are not separated from our peers. Applauding, and a lack of applause, are both measures of our values and identities as individuals and as a group.