The science of the thank you

What, you want this? No, I'm sorry, it's MINE.

What, you want this? No, I’m sorry, it’s MINE.

The Oscars are coming up this weekend, a night so perfectly choreographed and polished to a high sheen that it’s basically a multi-million dollar wedding cake. But it can also be an interesting target for anthropologists.

While anthropologists tend to study humans in their natural state, there’s a small window of semi-naturalism that occurs during the Academy Awards: The acceptance speech. Sure, actors often practice their speeches at home or come up with some notes, but it’s the only part of the evening when the network’s sole mechanism of control is to cue the play-off music.

Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student Rebecca Rolfe decided to delve into the science behind the acceptance speech, observing 207 speeches from over the past 60 years. Rolfe found some patterns that we might expect, but some others that are a bit surprising. For example, speeches have gotten longer over the years, starting from around 44 seconds for  men and 39 seconds for women in the 60s, stretching to 1:57 for men and 1:56 for women in recent years (hence the interrupting play-off music). And the way male and female winners hold their beloved Oscar speaks volumes as well; more than twice as many men hoist the statue one-handed over their head like a trophy in victory, while nearly four times as many women clutch the oscar with both hands to their chests, a protective, maternal gesture. But those are fairly predictable trends.

A bit less expected, tears don’t come as often as we seem to think. Just over 20 precent of actors and actresses cry on stage, and only 3 percent of directors turn on the waterworks. But even that minority is a big step up from earlier years. Seventy-one percent of speeches where the recipient cried happened after 1995.

Rolfe’s compendium of six decades worth of speeches is available on her interactive site. You can see the numbers broken down, search the speech histories of specific actors, and even write your own acceptance speech, should the day arrive where you need to give it to someone other than your cat.


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