Hold the phony ‘applause’
I was commenting to my freshman class on a just completed series of presentations, a harrowing process of public speaking while being observed, taped and scored by professor and students alike. “You stepped out of your comfort zone,” I understated. “And that’s a good thing. I can guarantee you only one thing that will happen if you stay in your comfort zone. And that is: nothing.”
It was a nice little sermon about the fact that growth and learning are rarely relaxing. When I ended, applause erupted. It surprised me and made me think about that near universal sign of approval, the clapping of hands, at times accompanied by shouts and cheers.
That sign has been cheapened and worn thin in many venues, where the standing ovation has become an all but required token of mild approbation. You can see this on TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” where every dance brings a strangely overexcited audience to its feet in paroxysms of unmitigated hysteria. And that’s for performances scoring 6s.
I’ve seen the same prodigality on “Ellen,” where the simple appearance of the star causes such a stir that the rest of the show is an anticlimax.
This is not the case in a college freshman lecture on management. The undergrads are stingy with such demonstrations. There was a time when noted professors entered the classroom and were greeted by stamping feet or a solemn act of rising from seats to show respect for the learning and the learned. Such reverence is now reserved for those who have reached a different peak, the shaky pinnacle of mass exposure we call celebrity.
The absurd nature of these outbursts is well exemplified by satirist Stephen Colbert, who draws all applause to himself, the purported newscaster, even when welcoming guests as formidable as a former Supreme Court justice. Colbert’s unrepentant narcissism is emblematic of an age of unearned notoriety and fame devoid of accomplishment.
Discerning audiences do still exist. I recently went to Broadway to see “Matilda.” The only performer who deserved a standing ovation was the principal, and he got one.
Derek Jeter’s choreographed exit from the baseball diamond received proportional applause (a lot), with an added jolt of well-earned exclamation when he hit an unchoreographed walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
Applause that celebrates a moment of extraordinary achievement is thrilling, a testimony from those present that they were privileged to witness something epochal.
Then there is applause that celebrates a culmination of years of achievement, like Jeter’s and those of so many others transitioning off the arena where they made their mark.
So, let’s reinstate applause, not as a moronic response to a TV producer’s command to clap, but as a spontaneous recognition that something memorable has occurred. Let applause be reserved to celebrate the privilege of being present at an event of significance.
Then, if those freshmen never clap for me again, I will be totally fine with that. Because, if they do issue a round of applause, I’ll know I’ve earned it.
Orlando R. Barone is a writer in Doylestown, Pa.