The sound of one million hands clapping

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

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.

What a racket.

From Shetland to the Isles of Scilly, people stopped what they were doing and started clapping.

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.

No one is really sure when humans first started clapping.

Gorillas, chimps, and orang-utans slap their hands together out of fear or to attract attention – but it seems that only humans do it to show approval.

The earliest references 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 varieties of applause: “bricks”, “roof-tiles”, and “bees”.

While the idea of paying for applause is comical, it is also a reminder that clapping is not just a trivial response to entertainment.

According to the critic Megan Garber, it is one of the ways we “represent ourselves as crowds”. Crowds are powerful things, and ones that politicians will go to great lengths to manipulate and control. Our individual claps may sound the same but, together, they add up to a tidal wave of sound – the strength of the collective.

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. Applause is superficial. There are more meaningful ways of showing you care – by telling someone your appreciation directly, for example.

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. And when our health workers are risking their lives while we stay at home, that is incredibly important. So, clap!

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!)
  2. Would you prefer to have the applause of a thousand people, or the sincere appreciation of one person?


  1. Come up with your own way to show appreciation for the people risking their lives for the public good in the fight against Covid-19. Share it on social media.
  2. Make a list of ways in which we show our approval for things online. Are they similar or different to applause? Write a one-page essay explaining which you think is the more authentic, giving examples and reasons why.

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.
Not important.
Control someone or a group in a way that is deceptive or underhand.
Not very meaningful.


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