I started frequenting a trendy poetry cafe in New York my freshman year of college. On the cusp of adulthood, poetry had been a safe haven for me, a place where I could escape when the noise in my head became too loud.
Unlike other entertainment venues I’d been to, the poetry cafe was filled with silence. There are no breaks in poetry the way there are in comedy shows when the echo of laughter lingers until the next line begins. The only audible reaction from the crowd comes from their thumbs and index fingers snapping in unison. Instead of laughter or clapping, the audience turns to snapping as a form of approval. When a powerful line erupts into thin air, there’s a symphony of fingers pop-pop-popping to catch it from falling. The more snaps that fill the empty space, the more people are pursing their lips and nodding their heads. If snapping could speak it would chant, “I agree,” or “I feel your pain.”
Have you ever wondered why people snap their fingers, rather than clap their hands, in some situations?
This quiet signal of agreement is not new; the form of recognition spans back centuries ago. Historians debate where snapping originated or when it began replacing clapping in specific cultures. Some attribute the rhythmic movement to the Ancient Romans’ theatrical performances. In addition to snapping, Romans would raise their handkerchiefs or flap their togas to show their appreciation. The subtle statement didn’t disrupt performer’s scenes and gave viewers enough time to show their amusement.
In the 1950s, beatnik poets — who fought against social conformity and the publishing industry — evolved in the NYC scene. Among these groups of poets were revolutionary figures like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, who performed in popular coffee shop basements such as the renowned Gaslight Cafe. Noise complaints ultimately forced performers to start snapping instead of clapping.
A hand movement as simple as clicking one’s index finger and thumb together became a symbol of rebellion among countercultures. Could you imagine that? The peaceful signal fit perfectly with the time period, as the ’60s were filled with non-violent protests. In lieu of the clamor clapping emitted, they used this more peaceful alternative to show their view on social issues.
From sorority houses to political conference meetings attendees would, you guessed it, snap the night away. If you’re a college student now, you may have seen this tradition work its way onto campuses.
One university men’s glee club says there’s a very practical reason for snapping at its performances — you can’t clap and hold a beer at the same time.
In the movie, Hidden Figures, that same response was used to describe why the crowd snaps as Jim Parsons mentions a mathematician’s accomplishment during his speech. Some say, he was holding a newspaper at the time and simply did not have both hands free to show his appreciation via clapping.
Today, some have compared snapping to liking a post on Facebook or retweeting a tweet. In the modern era, it also helps solve another technological problem.
“You can’t applaud while taking a selfie or texting,” Daniel Gallant, the executive director of Nuyorican Poets Cafe, told the New York Times.
In other activist circles, like political groups formed at Brown or Yale university, college students have started snapping at rallies or protests. In 2015, Yale students used this powerful tool to gain attention from a school official about his stance on offensive halloween costumes. Students are seen snapping in unison in a video of the protest that went viral.
Students are also snapping in discussion-based classes on college campuses, says Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College.
“I’ve made an effort to study the finger-snapping behavior, and I’ve reached an early conclusion: Finger-snapping is done delicately, respectfully, democratically, always in the middle of an event, whereas hand-clapping, which is by definition louder and more disruptive, is invariably reserved for the end,” he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Snapping, it appears, it less disruptive than clapping. The same is true in elementary and middle schools, where snapping helps keeps students calm and relatively quiet.
“If you’re sitting in an assembly with 400 children, and they can snap instead of going, ‘Me, too! Same here!’ it’s a lot easier to keep order,” Grace Lindsey, a sixth-grade science teacher, told the New York Times.