The sound of one million hands clapping

Encore! The Queen’s grandchildren, Charlotte, Louis, and George, join in thanking the NHS. © Getty

Should we applaud more? Last night, millions in Britain followed dozens of other countries celebrating health workers by bringing our hands together – an ancient and profoundly human act.

Every year on 11 November, Remembrance Day, we fall silent to remember those who have died in wartime.

But, yesterday, we made a noise. A noise to celebrate the living fighting a different war – the thousands of health workers battling day and night to beat coronavirus.

Dutch Londoner Annemarie Plas was inspired to start the #clapforourcarers campaign after seeing it happen in Holland. “I hope that it will give that boost to the frontline people,” she said, by showing the nation’s gratitude.

With theatres and concert halls shut, the usual spaces for applause are quiet. So, it seems appropriate to move this simple act of appreciation into our streets and homes, to mark the essential role health workers are playing in combatting Covid-19.

The earliest references to clapping come from ancient times. Roman plays used to end with the phrase “valete et plaudite”, meaning “goodbye and applaud” – just in case the audience had forgotten.

Later, the Emperor Nero employed 5,000 young men to clap for him when he sang. There were three types of applause: “bricks”, “roof-tiles”, and “bees”.

According to writer Megan Garber, clapping is one of the ways we “represent ourselves as crowds”.

So, in this time of physical isolation, should we be clapping more than ever?

Two hands together

Not really, goes one line of thinking. Campaigns like #clapforourcarers don’t make much of a difference. What our carers need right now is the right equipment, and for us to reduce pressure on the NHS by staying at home.

But applause is not just about showing approval or gratitude. It is about showing ourselves, the people we care about, and the world around us that we are together. It is about performing that togetherness with a simple action, even if we have to stay apart. Carry on clapping!

You Decide

  1. What types of handclap were “bricks”, “roof-tiles”, and “bees”? (Listen to the radio show in the Expert Links section to find out the answer!)


  1. Come up with your own way of showing appreciation for the people putting their lives at risk for all of us in the fight against Coivd-19. Share it on social media.

Some People Say...

“Giving energy and receiving it back through applause. I love it. That’s my world. I love it. I enjoy it. I live for it.”

Erykah Badu, American musician and actress

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that applause has been around for pretty much as long as there are written records. It’s a learned behaviour – not a reflex – meaning that we pick it up as babies from those around us. Scientists have even found that clapping spreads like disease, from one person to another – which makes it an especially appropriate response to the coronavirus pandemic!
What do we not know?
We do not know what the future of a heart-felt applause might be as we live our lives increasingly online. Likes and comments – the modern form of applause – suit the more solitary nature of social engagement created by the internet.

Word Watch

Frontline people
Those who are closest to action or danger; in this case, health workers.
Roman emperor, AD37-68.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.