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Dorris ’15: Snap out of it

Opinions Columnist

It started during spoken word and slam poetry readings. Then it spread to the occasional jazz club and improvisational performance. Now it even occurs during academic discussions.

These days, before you see a good idea, you will probably hear it.

I am talking about finger snapping — the act of snapping your fingers upon hearing something you approve of — and it is no longer just a feature of performance etiquette. In the past it was used as a substitute for hand-clapping. Originally practiced by the Beatniks in mid-20th century cafes, snapping was a strategy for avoiding the wrath of uptight neighbors and noise-loathing police. The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club has a long history of using it. The Glee Club’s explanation is that “you can’t clap and hold a beer at the same time.” Others claim that snapping is less disruptive than applause.

But snapping is no longer used as a substitute for clapping — now it actually occurs while someone is speaking. I see it in discussion-based classes. I see it during meetings for extracurricular clubs. On the job this summer, I even encountered it during employee information sessions. When people hear an idea they agree with, they will start to snap.

The problem is that we cannot stop snapping. We must offer our feedback at all times. Although it may seem like a way to engage actively, snapping actually makes us less perceptive. It encourages a half-baked absorption of information. We do not even have to wait until the speaker is finished to tell her how we feel. So if an idea is not getting enough snaps, some speakers will change the direction mid-speech.

Because that is what snapping does — it turns discussions into performances and discussants into competitors, with each person not trying to contribute to the conversation but trying to rouse the most snaps. Discussion then becomes not a dialogue that builds off itself but a series of monologues, each one trying to outshine the next.

Snapping encourages us to say things that please others, not to say things that are innovative or unique, not to say things that push the boundaries or even make sense. It most strongly rewards easily digested ideas and flashy topics. We are taught to react physically to certain buzzwords and clichés. But sometimes the most high-octane, multilayered ideas cannot be understood in the fraction of a second when the mind connects to the arm and tells the middle finger to rub against the thumb.

This is not to say I have not heard great ideas or comments accompanied by snapping, because I have. But even then, I still find the entire action unnecessary and even distracting. Other times it just seems rude. If you would not clap while someone is speaking, why would you snap?

It is a shame that snapping is especially prevalent at places like Brown — where the right glasses and hint of ironic detachment can make you a hipster and where enough snaps can make the most hackneyed idea seem extraordinary.

The sudden surge of snapping reminds me of the past presidential election. I watched the debates on a major newspaper’s website and remember a graph located directly under the livestream that said, “How do you feel about what’s being said right now?” Every time Obama opened his mouth, the graph violently swayed to “agree.” Every time Romney took the stage, before he even started speaking, it swayed to “disagree.” Only now do I realize that the graph drastically influenced my opinions about the outcome.

Snapping is just another feature of a culture in which we do not listen to the person who is speaking. We listen to the audience. This culture includes social media and disturbing graphs like the one at the bottom of the livestream. Instead of taking the time to formulate our own opinions we are deafened by the cacophony of opinions of everyone around us. It is easy to see why snapping encourages an environment of conformity. One person starts and everyone else joins in.

Some will disagree. They’ll refer to spoken word poetry. They’ll say snapping encourages speakers to keep going when they say something interesting. But snapping does something equally harmful: It encourages those who have initially unpopular ideas — like this one — to keep silent.

Was that a snap I heard?

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