The Sound of Many Hands Not Clapping

Setting: University of Zurich lecture room.                                                           Cast: the speaker – a professor from America, the hosting professor and the            members of his lab, some hanger-onnerers, The BB, me.                                   Situation: The speaker has just concluded a talk about the cognition of arithmetic.

Suddenly a rumbling begins. It grows louder. It’s coming from inside the room. Alarmed, I look around. The members of the audience are banging their knuckles on their desks. Oh dear! I had thought his talk very interesting but these people are hounding him.

The noise continues. It’s like stamping in a sports stadium – an upwelling of discontent, almost threat, from a restive group. How long will these academics contain themselves before they start upturning desks and hurling chairs?

I glance at the BB. He is smiling. So this is not a hounding but a time-honoured, if geographically and situationally circumscribed, way to show appreciation. I apply my knuckles to my desk.

Even when participating, it’s hard not to feel uneasy, hard to shake the association with group-think, simmering malice and blunt instruments.

Is it to do with our perception of sound?  This knocking is a rumble. Avalanches rumble. Lions and gorillas have deeper voices than (usually harmless) birds. Clapping, the customary way of showing appreciation, is almost a titter in a small group. Baby cries are high-pitched.

Have humans been ‘programmed’ across the eons to be concerned about low noises or was my response simply a cultural artefact? I have been unable to find any research on this. Do any of you know anything?

3 responses to “The Sound of Many Hands Not Clapping

  1. Interesting idea that I haven’t thought about before …. but sorry … can’t help with this one.

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