Hats, Manners and Society


baseball capI was at a local restaurant on the weekend, enjoying a nice meal with my wife. Of the six males – I hesitate to call them ‘men’ for reasons below – in the particular room in which we sat, I was the only one not wearing a baseball cap. I was also the only one not under 30.

Wearing a hat indoors, as I was taught by people whose manners were impeccable (my parents and grandparents), is gauche. Gauche: graceless, awkward, unsophisticated.

Wearing at hat at the table during a meal was so crude as to be viewed in social terms in the same category as breaking wind in public. Yet there they were. At a younger age than them, I would have received a smack for even thinking of doing so. Perhaps they were orphans without parents to raise them appropriately in the matter of manners and behaviour.

Why does anyone wear a hat indoors? It doesn’t protect the wearer from sun or rain indoors. It is as much use at the dinner table as wearing a raincoat and galoshes and holding an umbrella. Is it simply crude and coarse behaviour or just laziness? Given the me-me-me nature of the selfie generation, perhaps it is both. So obsessed with themselves, they cannot bear to remove an icon of their carefully crafted look-alike image.

Perhaps it is also an indication of poor hygiene: I always suspect the wearers have not washed their hair – or perhaps, judging by their dress, their bodies – for several days, and do not wish to have their greasy hair noticed in public (don’t get me started on the trend for shaggy, unkempt hillbilly beards…)

Emily Post, who became famous for writing about etiquette, would have been scandalized. After all, one of her prime rules about the wearing of hats was to  remove it when at mealtimes, at the table, In restaurants and in coffee shops. Only boors did not agree with her judgment.

Young men these days don’t read Emily Post. Or any other books about manners. Ours is a gloriously selfish, individualist, uncivil age where each person’s wants and needs are more important than those of anyone else and respect is a sign of weakness. And to express their staunch individuality, the younger generations all dress alike and show bad manners.

Nor do young men read advice about clothing. Sartorial etiquette is entirely missing from their education. All five were dressed identically although in two different parties: somewhat worn and faded black T-shirts, untucked over equally worn jeans. No effort was made to dress for dinner or at least tidy up. No effort was made to reflect that a social outing for an evening meal was of some greater significance than, say, sitting in the back of a pickup truck guzzling beer.

Their shabby appearance made what should have been a fine dining experience for the rest of the clientele feel more like a hasty meal in a truck stop populated with construction workers on a break. The ambience was lowered to the lowest common denominator: them.

Don’t mistake me. I understand casual: I dress so most of my day when I work from home. But I do not dress so not for every occasion, nor would I wear scruffy clothes to a dinner or event. I wear hats at times, too, yes, even baseball caps, but would never consider keeping it on indoors. It is just uncouth and lowers the quality of the experience for those around you. It is, in essence, uncivil. Uncouth.

In the Ask Andy About Clothes site, it says, simply enough, “Gentlemen remove their hats when indoors and especially while eating!” Ah: there in that initial word is our clue. These males were not gentlemen in the traditional sense of the word; the sense that mean a person of taste, manners, polite deportment and respectability.

The Advanced Etiquette site adds:

So… how can I say this nicely without yelling in all capital letters: No man or woman, young or old, should ever, ever, ever, ever wear a sports hat — especially a baseball cap—indoors. Not in restaurants, in someone’s home, at the dining table, at church, a funeral, in a classroom, in a museum, at a movie or performance theatre… on and on. There is absolutely no purpose to keeping your hat on… not even when you are having a bad hair day or need to cover up a bald spot on your head.  It’s all about when it’s proper or not proper to wear a hat.  It’s purely out of laziness and a false sense of looking cool and in fashion… not! There is equally nothing cool about wearing your baseball cap backwards… again especially indoors.

On the way out of that restaurant, we passed a family waiting for a table. He, the father, was clearly over 30, dressed similarly to the younger men, with baseball cap on indoors, and backwards. So the lack of upbringing is not confined to the under-30 generation. Older guys trying to look younger wear them too.

I have also always assumed a backwards hat an indicator of mental flaccidity. If you can’t tell the front from the back of a baseball cap, you are not good breeding material, so women should be wary. Your DNA should not be shared. Sadly, it all too often is.

I am not simply being curmudgeonly about this due to a sudden awareness of my advancing age thanks to a recent and milestone birthday. Others agree: backwards caps are foolish and immature. On the Man-Rule site, the author says:

…a baseball cap is very well designed to protect the wearer’s head and face from the searing rays of the sun. That’s the entire purpose of the way the cap is made – the bill of the cap is specifically engineered to provide a shady area for the eyes, so today’s baseball players aren’t blinded when they’re hunting dinosaurs and can comfortably nap at any point during a day game. The Chicago Cubs, for example, have mastered this napping technique, and as a result are the most well-rested baseball team in history, although it tends to cause their win-loss record to suffer.
And yet many people, primarily young guys, insist on turning their baseball caps around backwards, so that the bill of the cap hangs down over their neck. This does absolutely nothing except make the wearer look even stupider than a caveman with big leaves tied on his head.

He adds, somewhat wistfully,

Why do you care how I wear my hat?
Because, despite the goofy appearance you’re projecting, I still dream of the day when all guys will become Men.

To wit: immature males wear their caps backwards. Men don’t. Like the author, I too yearn for the day when these young males gracefully “surrender the things of youth” and emerge from their chrysalis as men. Men who doff their hats in restaurants. Men who show manners.

This afternoon, as I worked about the yard, I saw a young male pushing a baby carriage with toddler inside along the street. The male had a backwards baseball cap, baggy jeans, scruffy sports jersey for some team I could not identify and to which he clearly did not belong, was smoking (in the presence of the child, a sign of evident  mental incapacity…) and looked about 16. Perhaps he looked younger because of his dress, but I doubt he was much older.

Sometimes I despair of generations of such males to come because clearly they are breeding before maturity, before they have learned to become men. But that’s a future post to entertain you.

SB Nation has an entertaining piece on what the angle of your cap says about your character. While I don’t agree with its conclusions, to highlight two, the forwards and backwards, I offer these selections:

Zero degrees/ straight ahead: Peyton Manning. The pro’s pose. Wearing your hat straight forward just unveils the rest of your character, and in this case that character is that of a no-nonsense hombre who just plain gets it. No one wears their hat straighter than Peyton Manning, and this is a literal truth…
180 degrees: THUG. See also: punk, clown, chump, or any variation of those words in succession. The fully retrograde hat signals to the world that you do not care for its conventions or standards, and will certainly not be a success anywhere…

Leaving aside my unfamiliarity with Peyton Manning, one has to wonder why young, white males would want to emulate lowlife thugs instead of a mature man who is clearly a good example.

Think of the comparison between, say, John Ham as Don Draper in Mad Men, or James Bond as played by Sean Connery, and these would-be white, middle-class “gangstas.” Which projects the image of maturity, respectability, dependability and solidity best? Which would you rather have as a dinner companion?

Consider this quote, allegedly from Mad Magazine:

Pipe-Smoking Cardigan Dad: It’s stupid to wear your baseball cap backwards.
Dorky Kid: But I’m expressing my individuality, showing my unique style.
PSCD: Hmm. (puffs on pipe)
DK: Besides, everyone’s doing it.

On the context of “cool” – cool is the opposite of what the herd is doing. When the herd wears backwards baseball caps, wearing one is sheeplike, definitely not cool. When hippies started slitting jean legs to insert a piece of cloth and make their own bell-bottom pants, it was cool. When the clothing industry caught on and started mass-producing them, the cool folks moved on. Only the sheep wore them.

Backwards baseball caps are not a sign of non-conformity when just about every male under 25 is wearing it like that: it’s a sign of conformity and herd behaviour. Conformity is never cool (segue: the 1967 film, Privilege, was about how the establishment manipulated kids into believing conformity was cool… very watchable even today; the message still resonates in our society – but the establishment has long been more sophisticated in how it achieved that goal, as we see in the fashions today…).

But I digress. Back to the hats-in-restaurants theme. Robin Abrahams, writing an advice column in the Boston Globe, gave this witty rejoinder to the question of hats at the table:

…I generally assume a man eating with a hat on is temporarily without his yarmulke and only using the trucker cap to avoid giving offense to the God whom he thanks for his meals. The last time I visited family in the Ozarks I certainly was impressed by the number of absent-minded but observant Jews I saw!

As tempted as I am by this explanation, I somehow cannot imagine those young males in the restaurant were Orthodox Jews. For one thing, I couldn’t see any tzitzit… and while I couldn’t hear their entire conversation, I’m sure none of them said grace, let along anything that started with “Baruch atah Adonai…”

Why, you may ask, does it matter? Why do any manners matter? Aren’t manners just the archaic relics of a dead social system that were meant to keep classes in their place?

Well, if you need to ask, you are beyond help. Manners are a social glue that help bind us, help avoid conflict and give us constancy in our interactions. They keep us from degenerating into the selfish individualistic, gimme-gimme commercial society that seems poised to overwhelm us at times. Manners matter in the same way correct grammar and spelling matter in communication.

Hat etiquette is simply part of a larger pattern of respectful behaviour that should extend across all of our interactions in company. It shows your awareness of others and a respect for their experience, not simply your own. As it says on Etiquette Daily:

Basically, hats are removed when going indoors as a measure of respect. Therefore, caps and hats should be removed when entering a home (which includes while eating at the table), when entering a place of religion, or when going to a restaurant (a sign of respect toward the other diners at the restaurant). When entering a store or other public area like a train station, the hat or cap may remain on. This applies to baseball caps worn by men or by women.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius declares, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man…” which today we reiterate as “clothes make the man.” Clothes, too, can unmake the man. Wearing your baseball cap at the table in a restaurant only identifies you as immature, coarse, unmannered, disrespectful and very possibly unclean.

But perhaps that is the definition of the selfie generation in a nutshell. Maybe the notion of a  more refined, mannered society was merely a dream my generation and our ancestors once strove for, but, judging by the hats, failed to achieve.

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