University of Manchester bans clapping in favor of ‘jazz hands’

According to BBC News, the Students’ Union at the University of Manchester has banned the use of clapping in favor of using the British Sign Language expression for clapping. Which, admittedly, looks an awful lot like jazz hands. In the BBC video below, Union officer Sara Khan explains why they made the move. 

(Sorry, this is undoubtedly the perfect gif for this article.)

I’ll admit that I thought this was ridiculous when I first saw the headline, but after thinking about it, it sort of makes sense. Khan explained that traditional clapping can cause issues for students with autism, sensory issues or deafness. As the BBC explained:

Ms Khan, the union’s liberation and access officer, who proposed the motion at a recent meeting said clapping can “discourage” some from attending democratic events.

So-called “jazz hands”, she said, encouraged an “environment of respect”.

“I think a lot of the time, even in Parliamentary debates, I’ve seen that clapping, whooping, talking over each other, loud noises, encourages an atmosphere that is not as respectful as it could be,” she said.

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I think that it’s not unreasonable to ask people to not be obnoxious in public areas. In fact, it’s not socially acceptable to be loud in public. Think about the last time you were in a public area – a mall, busy sidewalk, or elsewhere – and someone was loud. People get distracted by it and stop what they’re doing to look at what’s happening. We often refer to it as “making a scene,” after all.

But at the same time, I understand Khan’s point. As someone with social anxiety, I understand how loud noises can be overwhelming for some people.

Clapping is a fantastic form of expression, though. It’s a wonderful biologically built-in percussion instrument that most of us have. When we clap, we take kinetic energy and turn it into sound waves that others around us hear, and our social norms tell us it’s a show of excitement, appreciation, or agreement.

But as the fantastic YouTuber Vsauce points out in one of his videos, clapping is can also be considered “the diarrhea of sound.”

One of the studies he cites, in the Journal of The Royal Society, suggested that clapping itself is less about showing your own appreciation for a performance, and rather a social obligation we feel compelled to perform.

We can even see that clapping has been encouraged for more than two millennia, as Today I Found Out notes:

As for documented history, beyond certain references to clapping to show appreciation that appear in various books of the Bible, such as in the Books of Kings that were possibly written around the 6th century BC, it is generally thought that applause can likely be traced back to at least the ancient Greeks who around this same time are known to have had rather boisterous audiences, and considered audience participation in performances something of a civic duty.

The exact form this participation took varied depending on the mood of the crowd and quality of performance, with Ancient Greek audiences not being averse to throwing stones and food at performers they didn’t like (see: Has There Ever Been an Actual Case of Someone Being Pelted With Tomatoes During a Performance?). In contrast, happy or enthusiastic crowds often showed their feelings by shouting, stamping their feet and generally doing anything that made as much noise as possible. Whether this specifically included the clapping of hands isn’t clear today, but given that one of the best ways we humans have to make noise, outside of using our vocal cords or whistling, is to slap our hands together, it seems a strong possibility that Ancient Greek audiences did do this.

At the end of the day, I’m pretty torn on this. What it really boils down to is helping those with sensory issues, but at the cost of sacrificing something that has become a ubiquitous show of support in our society that has been around for thousands of years. I think it’s important for those with sensory issues to feel accepted and not pushed away. But let’s be realistic – clapping is not something that’s ever going to go away.

I’m interested to hear what you think. Let me know in the comments!

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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