Snapping Fingers

I have recently encountered an endearing trend among high-school and college students, informally as well as in classrooms and in larger gatherings: collective finger-snapping. Once, in the middle of a lecture I delivered at the University of Oxford, someone began expressing approval by snapping her fingers, and within seconds the entire hall followed her. The same thing has happened in class discussions about varieties of love and ways of expressing them. At first the sound was distracting, but it quickly became evident that its purpose was congratulatory.

The tradition seems to me connected with spoken-word poetry. I’ve been at slam-poetry events where finger-snapping is the most visible way the audience connects with performers.

During the Occupy Wall Street movement, all sorts of hand signals were used to communicate, including “twinkles” (both hands raised with fingers pointing up and wiggling to indicate agreement) and finger-snapping as a sign of accord.

Sign language of this type, particular to a specific group, was also used during street marches and other organized community efforts, like the anti-austerity movement in Spain (also called Movimiento 15-M); public gatherings in Tahrir Square, in Egypt; and after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in France. In ancient Rome, the pollice verso was a type of hand sign used in gladiator fights to offer judgment on a defeated combatant. Exactly what the sign was is still unknown.

I’ve made an effort to study the finger-snapping behavior, and I’ve reached an early conclusion: Finger-snapping is done delicately, respectfully, democratically, always in the middle of an event, whereas hand-clapping, which is by definition louder and more disruptive, is invariably reserved for the end. Also, finger-snapping, when done this way, always lasts, in totto, only a few seconds and is generally repeated three times in a row.

Most people use their thumb with their middle finger, and only very few their thumb, index, and middle finger. I’ve seen only one person using the so-called ring finger. Maybe there is a difference between finger-snapping done individually and in unison with others.

When I was growing up in Mexico, snapping one’s fingers was an action inevitably connected with class and, occasionally, with gender and ethnicity — and, unfortunately, it still is. The image that comes to my mind is of a patron in a restaurant snapping his fingers to get the attention of the waiter. The pattern is perceived culturally as a sign of arrogance: The haves feel they can get the have-nots to do as they wish, when they wish, through this automatic gesture. Often, though not always, the patron is Caucasian and the waiter is female and mestizo. I can’t for the life of me invoke in my mind the reverse: a mestiza snapping her fingers to get a Caucasian’s attention.

Finger-snapping is occasionally linked to tics, especially in people with Tourette’s Syndrome and other chronic-tic disorders.

As a behavior, it is, of course, as old as life itself. It was connected with dance and music in ancient Greece (the word is apokroteo). In Mediterranean music — in flamenco, for example — finger-snapping, or pitos, is an essential component that is used in syncopated fashion, adding not only to the rhythm but to the magic. It is usually done on the off-beat, on 2 and 4. In glee clubs, it shows up frequently. In fact, I’ve heard the joke that among certain glee groups, snapping is popular because you can‘t clap and hold a beer at the same time.

To me finger-snapping is connected with a popular expression I hear often these days: “Oh snap!” Popularized by comedians like Tracy Morgan on Saturday Night Life, it denotes surprise, even bewilderment. I make the connection because several students of mine, as well as their friends, often say it, most recently during a conversation in my office, while snapping their fingers, as if to apologize for an error: “Oh, sorry. My bad! I’ve messed up!” Otherwise, it occurs in countless other manifestations of pop culture. Think of Thing in The Addams Family. In the comics, Robin of Batman and Robin often snaps his fingers when an idea comes to him.

I love the way finger-snapping has acquired this new quality of joy to express understated, restrained public endorsement. I love when it is done by the young in an event I participate in: It creates a sense of community. I love its spontaneity, the way it serves as traction, involving the public in the performance, bringing sound and movement to silence and stasis.





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