In one scene in Hidden Figures, Kevin Costner is giving a speech to the assembled mathematicians. Kevin mentions one mathematician's accomplishment, and everyone applauds by snapping their fingers repeatedly instead of clapping. A few seconds later, Kevin finished the speech and everyone applauds by clapping.

I've only seen snapping applause in movies as a "hipster" thing done in an underground music club. Was this part of NASA culture? 60's culture? Does the snapping have some different meaning than clapping does?

EDIT: As Paulie_D pointed out in his answer, it is Jim Parsons who initiates the finger-snapping, not Kevin Costner.

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    Poetry. It's a poetry thing, not a "hipster" thing. – Catija Jan 27 '17 at 19:12
  • I haven't seen it, so I don't know the context but this might help: currentzionsville.com/2012/05/14/applause-for-poetry-its-a-snap – Catija Jan 27 '17 at 19:18
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    @Catija Thanks. The scene in the movie didn't include poetry, strangely. And thanks for the correction about "hipsters"; your article mentions beatniks. Guess I don't know my hipsters from my beatniks. :P – BrettFromLA Jan 27 '17 at 20:39
  • SNAP-8 was the name of a program to get the US to the moon in the 1960's. It may be a reference to that program. – user50273 Apr 16 '17 at 8:16
  • Off-topic, finger snapping has always been the way in which we "applaud" a good play in our local region (at the very least for billiards, foosball and darts). Applause is too loud for what should only amount to a non-verbal "nice one", which can happen fairly often in an extended game. Consider it a sort of "mini-applause", snapping your finger to your hand is a smaller version of smacking your hand to your other hand. – Flater Nov 9 '17 at 15:50
up vote 16 down vote accepted

If I may, your recollection is slightly off.

The finger snapping is started by the character portrayed by Jim Parsons in response to President Kennedy's moonshot speech.

His comment is

"I suppose we should thank President Kennedy for the continued job security"

enter image description here

The assembled scientists / mathematicians indicate their approval by finger snapping also.

enter image description here

Kevin Costner finishes up by praising their work and applauds them and they respond in kind.

Now this doesn't actually answer your question but finger snapping as a sign of appreciation and as a substitute for applause has roots in many ancient cultures but rose to prominence in the US in the 50's 'beatnik' culture.

The reason behind this (as legend goes) is you can't clap and hold a drink at the same time and that it is a quieter form of appreciation than hand clapping.

Now Hidden Figures takes place in the early 1960/61 IIRC so finger snapping would have been more mainstream by then...even if not common.

Although our scientists are hardly beatniks it's possible that this form of alternative applause is just being used as quieter and less disruptive during announcements.

On the other hand, as pointed out by our OP

Jim Parsons was holding a newspaper, so he couldn't clap, which could have motivated his character to snap with one hand. The others would have picked it up as being a recognizable, alternative form of applause.

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    Thank you for the clarification and the GIFs! I noticed that Jim Parsons was holding a newspaper, so he couldn't clap, which could have motivated his character to snap with one hand. The others would have picked it up as being a recognizable, alternative form of applause. – BrettFromLA Jan 27 '17 at 20:54
  • Oohh...good point...I'll add that if I may? – Paulie_D Jan 27 '17 at 20:56
  • Of course! I'm going to edit my question to fit what actually happens in the movie (thanks to your GIFs), but I'll do it in a way that doesn't make your question sound crazy. – BrettFromLA Jan 27 '17 at 22:12
  • LOL! Whoops. I must have been thinking "Kenneth Parcell" from 30 Rock. – BrettFromLA Jan 27 '17 at 22:19
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    They could also just be monkeying him, possibly to show that they're all sheepish. – Nate Diamond Jan 28 '17 at 1:43

For what it’s worth at various times finger snapping was the most polite form of agreement at MIT. This was during the early 80’s.

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