Christian Bailey, a 58-year-old physicist who works for a manufacturing company in Elkton, Md., was attending a conference on progressive health care issues when he began to feel self-conscious. He would look around and notice a key difference between himself and nearly everyone else in the room.
“There was this phenomenon where people would start snapping,” he said.
Bailey did not understand. Were they snapping their fingers to indicate they wanted to take a turn at the microphone? Was it an indication of friendship with the speaker?
He did what 58-year-old people do in such situations. He called a young friend.
“I told him it was like in church how someone might say, ‘Amen,’” said Kameron Fields, 28, a mechanical design engineer at the same company.
In a culture ruled by the instant feedback loop of retweets, likes and hearts, the snap (and by “snap” we mean the old-fashioned act of brushing the thumb and middle finger against one another in an effort to make a popping sound) is more often being used as a quiet signal of agreement or appreciation in conferences, university auditoriums, poetry slams and even at dinner tables.
As opposed to a single snap, often affected with the sassy wag of a hand and the utterance, “Oh, snap!” to signify that someone has just been stung by a verbal zinger, snapping repeatedly for a sustained several seconds is a way for audience members and classroom denizens to express approval without completely disrupting a lecture, speech or performance.
“Snapping is not new, but it is newly resurgent,” said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan. The practice, he said, dates to the heyday of the beatnik poets, who would gather in coffeehouses and at hootenannies to perform poems laced with cultural rebellion and political activism. (It has also long been popular in bastions of counter-counterculture: sorority houses. Some historians say snapping was used in the days of the Roman Empire as well.)
Whereas clapping is often a rote response to the completion of a performance or speech, snapping — as used by the beatniks, the Brutuses, the Gamma Phi Betas — is a less official, more spontaneous and impassioned in-the-moment response. Today, social media has created a newfangled impulse for real-time responses between speaker and listener. Snapping, in offline situations, feeds the need.
At the Nuyorican Poet Cafe, patrons line up and spill onto the street in advance of the weekly Friday Night Poetry Slam, a tournament-style competition in which poets present their three-minute-long works and the more than 100 people sitting at tables with their friends, drinking beer and wine, snap in admiration. The single-handedness of snapping is well-suited to our times, Gallant said.
“You can’t applaud while taking a selfie or texting,” he said.
Though snapping in very formal academic presentations of poetry can be jarring to the audience, said Bianca Lynne Spriggs, a poet and poetry teacher in Lexington, Ky., it is a staple of the poetry culture, particularly among young poets and in urban environments. And since the work can be quite revealing of a poet’s emotional experiences, snapping amid the presentation of a new work is a key show of support.
“It takes a lot of courage to share dripping wet new work,” Spriggs said.
In the same manner that it can feel awkward to “like” a social media post that focuses on dark or sad topics, clapping in response to an emotional poem can be off-putting, both to the poet and to the clapper.
“Applause feels almost like too much, especially if a poem is dealing with a heavier topic like sexual abuse or physical abuse or heartbreak,” Spriggs said. “Snapping is quiet, and it offers encouragement when you don’t want to bring too much attention.”
Snapping is a big thing in many school settings, not just in poetry class. Grace Lindsey, 22, graduated from Yale last spring and is now a sixth-grade science teacher in Brooklyn. At Yale, she said, snapping was a common phenomenon at poetry slams, spoken-word performances and “the sort of events that feed into college culture.”
In the context of middle school, she said, snapping can help teachers maintain a shred of quiet and control. In some schools, snapping is just one hand signal in a wider nonverbal lexicon.
There is also the American Sign Language gesture for applause, in which the hands are raised to shoulder height and rotated side to side in a royal-wave motion. (See also “spirit fingers.”) Teachers also encourage students to affix their hand into the “hang loose” sign (also known as the Hawaiian shaka sign) and tip it back and forth to signify that they identify with something that has been said.
“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,” Lindsey said.
Though the gestures have great utility in her professional life, Lindsey is not happy that the habit has seeped into her personal life. Recently, to her great dismay, she found herself snapping her approval while having dinner with parents.
“I don’t think it’s a cool thing, and it shouldn’t come across to anyone as a cool thing,” she said.
Gallant of the Nuyorican Poet Cafe recently learned this the hard way. He attended a rock concert in Brooklyn this month and was moved to show his appreciation.
“I snapped at the end of a song,” he said, “and everyone looked at me like I was a little crazy.”