In response to yesterday’s post about the perfection of my wife and my annoyance with being asked to remove my hat in a restaurant, many readers argued that removing one’s hat at the table is polite and expected, and they sided with the restaurateur. That really wasn’t the point of the piece (it was more about my wife than table etiquette), but my rebuttal to their argument is as follows:
Every expert on manner, including Emily Post, says that hats should be removed at the dinner table. Post and others go on to say that hats should be removed whenever you are in someone’s home, at work, in public buildings such as libraries or town halls and in movie theaters.
Leaving the insanity of the movie theater and town hall behind, it turns out (and I know this is fairly obvious but is also seemingly forgotten) that none of these so-called etiquette experts are my boss. None of them have any authority over me or anyone else. None of them are credentialed in any way. Experts like Emily Post declare themselves experts (or take over the job from their mothers in some bizarre yet completely accepted form of etiquette nepotism), prescribe rules and customs to the masses, and watch as people who are inexplicably invested in these rules point to them (and their grandmothers) as sources of wisdom and authority.
I would like to offer an opposing hypothesis:
I believe that it’s far more polite (and perhaps more moral) to accept a person for who she or he is, appearance included, as long as that appearance does not infringe on the experience or safety of another.
My baseball cap did not infringe on the experience of my fellow diners in any way. It made no difference to anyone save a snobbish restaurateur.
I would argue that imposing your own arcane set of beliefs upon your guests for no useful purpose is far ruder than any man who chooses to wear a hat at the dinner table.
And this hat-at-the-dinner-table restriction is arcane. It originated in the late nineteenth century when cities were dirty from all of the industries that burned coal for power. Men wore hats to keep the coal-burning debris out of their hair and off of their faces. As a result, these hats became dirty. When men sat down at the table, they removed their hats because they did not want to spill any dirt or soot on the table or in the food.
At the time, removing one’s hat at the dinner table served a purpose and was considered polite because it was polite. Spilling soot onto the mashed potatoes would be considered rude by anyone’s measure.
But the soot that once filled the air is gone today. There is no danger of my baseball cap contaminating the food or the table cloth. The reason behind the rule is gone, yet the expectation remains.
Therefore, I reject the expectation. In my microscopic way, I am attempting to force change. I am bucking the system.
Changes in etiquette happen all the time.
There was a time, not so long ago, when men were expected to dress in suits when flying on an airplane. Air travel was considered glamorous, and as such, people dressed for the occasion. To see a man boarding an airplane in a tee shirt and jeans would’ve been unheard of fifty years ago, but today, it’s commonplace, and this change took place long before the increased screening procedures in airports.
We simply agreed that dressing up for travel was unnecessary and probably a waste of time. And it probably began with a few ne’re-do-wells like me who dared to violate the custom and dress down for their plane ride.
Was society harmed by the relaxing of the airline dress code? Of course not.
It was once required that the bride’s parents pay for the entire wedding. Today this expense is often shared by both sets of parents and the couple themselves.
Has society been damaged by the change in economic etiquette?
Of course not. Nor would we be harmed if men wore hats at the dinner table. Until the air is filled with soot again and there is a genuine need to remove a hat at the table in order to protect the sanctity of the potatoes, it is far ruder and incredibly arrogant to impose your arbitrary and meaningless standards of etiquette on your guests.
Better to allow your guests the freedom of self expression than the shackles of your pointless expectation.