Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Manners maketh man

A post from last September, “Take off your hat, sir,” continues to provoke occasional comments, including this most recent one: “I know you say it's disrespectful [to leave one’s hat on in a courtroom], but why is that? it just doesn't make sense.... so please explain that to me so I have a better understanding and so I have a better reason than ‘because it shows respect.’ ”

I can give some historical perspective. Removing headgear was likely a gesture of peacefulness. A warrior removing his helmet exposes his head, and this gesture of vulnerability indicates that no harm is intended. Similarly, the custom of shaking hands upon meeting seems to have originated as an indication that one is not carrying a weapon.

Over time the practice of uncovering took on additional meanings. A man removed his hat as a gesture of respect for authority in the presence of the monarch or a judge. And in time good manners dictated such practices as removing the hat at the theater, at the dinner table, at the opera, in church, in an elevator when a lady is present. Tipping the hat in encountering acquaintances became a gesture of friendly acknowledgement.

This may seem quaint and arbitrary to you, particularly if you’re wearing a baseball cap at table in a laughable effort to conceal your male-pattern baldness. And it is. Manners are inherently arbitrary. If you are male and Jewish and Orthodox, you follow a completely different set of customs about headgear.

Manners are like idioms in language. Idioms convey meanings that are not expressed by the literal words, which is why students learning a new language have to memorize idioms. There is no point in arguing over the gender of nouns in French or German; they’re just that way, and if you don’t trouble to learn them you will sound uneducated and crude to native speakers.

The force of custom can be stronger than law, which is, I think, why some people who write about usage often mistake stylistic preferences for rules of grammar. And even though they are wrong-headed in their advice, such people are on to something. The way you dress and conduct yourself and the way you write transmit messages about yourself.

You may think that wearing a baseball cap in court demonstrates your autonomy and your freedom from the dead hand of archaic custom. That’s fine, but you should be aware that the judge is going to think that you’re just a jerk or a slob. You can ignore or flout the conventions of standard written English, “just so long as you get your meaning across,” as my freshman composition students used to say, so long as you can accept that some readers will conclude that you’re subliterate and will then ignore what you have to say.

Just take off your hat, and no backtalk.  


  1. I have wondered for years if it might have been a anti-Jewish thing to some small or large extent?

  2. I guess for me it comes down to a question of WHY would you wear a hat indoors, in the first place, courtroom or not?

    A hat is intended to protect one's head from the elements, or from things falling from above. Neither of those situations presents itself indoors.

  3. I'm a trial court judge, and I definitely notice what people choose to wear in my courtroom (and whether they remember to remove their hats). I also understand that many of them have never learned the proper social conventions when it comes to appearing in formal proceedings, so I try to gently instruct those who may have missed the mark; it's a learning opportunity of sorts. Some clothing choices, though, are beyond my comprehension.

    One instance comes to mind. A gentleman on felony probation showed up for a hearing to review his progress. Those who do well continue with their probation, those not doing well may find themselves remanded to custody. This man appeared for his review wearing a T shirt with the words "If I wanted your opinion I'd give it to you" printed across the front. After conducting his hearing, I gently pointed out to him that he might want to choose a different shirt when he next appeared in front of a judge. To his credit, he agreed with me.

  4. Virginia MerchánMarch 16, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    Chapeau! :)

  5. I like the analogy. Think I'll use it in my English class. If you don't mind, that is.

  6. One time when I was called for jury duty I started observing what others wore. Most people dressed up. (I wore a jacket and tie.) One guy wore jeans, a flannel shirt and a "Question Authority" button. He didn't get picked for the jury. Every time they called a juror number, a woman in the back row loudly asked the woman next to her, "what number was that?" Don't know if she was really hard of hearing, but she didn't get picked either.

  7. @Steve Hall

    One might say the same of all clothing. Yet we do not strip to the skin as soon as we step indoors (depending on what sort of party it is). Clothing, and its absnce, has both a practical and a symbolic function.

  8. "If you are male and Jewish and Orthodox, you follow a completely different set of customs about headgear."

    Or Quaker.

  9. 'One guy wore jeans, a flannel shirt and a "Question Authority" button. He didn't get picked for the jury.'

    In the past I've managed to rely on being a lawyer, but just in case I'll have to remember that one next time I get called up for jury duty.

  10. When appearing in front of a judge should you have your hands in front or back holding then together?? Would anyone have an idea?

  11. Aren't manners and etiquette just another manifestation of the "baa baa" mentality? Take off your hat in this courtroom! Show some respect for the Law! No backtalk! Shut up! Why are we so motivated by fear of what other's think? In the courtroom scenario, because what one man thinks about your "appearance" could affect the status of your liberty (whether you go to jail or not). Doesn't anyone else see something fundamentally wrong with all this? Have you all been on the "ride" too long? Shut him up! We've got a lot invested in this ride! Manners and etiquette are just another form of social conformity which is a manifestation of totalitarian rule and tyranny! Dress how you want! Stop being afraid! Or just do what your told, take off your hat, and shut up. Your call.