On “Hats Off”

What is the point of having students take their hats off when they come into the school building?

As far as I can tell, there is no educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat. It’s not like the hat is keeping the knowledge out.

Upon introspection, I came up with two related answers:
– Manners/etiquette/respect/politeness
– Tradition

Google seems to have similar answers. Note that I say that these are “related” answers because the first one is really dependent on the second, in that the reason that it is now considered polite to remove your hat is that it has traditionally been considered polite to remove your hat.

Some manners have what you might call practical purposes – some are related to health and hygiene, and many are related to coordinating group behaviors that would otherwise be chaotic (things like turn-taking, establishing the right of way, etc.) In cases of group coordination, manners are often arbitrary, but that does not diminish their importance. For example, it does not matter which side of the road you drive on – some countries choose the left side, others the right – but it is vitally important that everyone in a particular locale follow the same convention. Now you may not consider driving habits to be a subset of “manners”, but I would argue that they are close enough for comparison – and consider the parallel (but perhaps less vital) case of determining which glass is yours when seated at a round table on a formal occasion. Do you reach for the glass on your left or your right? Even one person who doesn’t know or observe the (arbitrary) rule could cause someone else to be left without a glass. Of course this situation is fairly simple to resolve and therefore the rule is not considered particularly important.

On the other hand, some manners do not seem to have any practical purposes at all, whether vital or trivial. For example, verbal politeness rules do not seem to have a practical purpose. Georgian and English have different verbal politeness rules (different words and different situations in which they apply) and Georgians often consider me to be strangely polite because I am forever trying to apply English politeness rules in the Georgian language, which is not an exact match. Socially, this can make some things a bit awkward, but it doesn’t seem to have any practical effects. For example, if I’m overly polite or indirect in asking a shopkeeper for some bread, I still get the bread even if it comes with a perplexed look. In contrast, Georgians’ different turn-taking etiquette has often caused me to have practical difficulties in making basic purchases or other transactions.

Hats are not a part of social organization or coordination scheme – they do not help us to resolve ambiguous situations in which everyone must make the same arbitrary decision. They do not facilitate the orderly conduct of commerce. In this regard, taking your hat off is more like an act of verbal politeness. At some point in the obscure, distant past, there may have been a practical reason to take off a hat indoors, or at least some relevant social significance beyond “because that’s what I was taught”. However, as my introspection and googling reveal, those reasons are essentially lost to us today. And so today the effective reason for taking your hat off in a building is “because it is polite”. And the question I asked earlier becomes “what is the point of politeness?” or perhaps “what is the point of requiring students to be polite?”

Now I’ve argued that politeness rules do not serve a practical purpose, but that doesn’t mean that politeness *itself* doesn’t serve a practical purpose. The forms that politeness can take are different from culture to culture, but the phenomenon of politeness (and its opposite, rudeness) would appear to be universal. So what does politeness actually do?

Well, it’s essentially a form of social signalling. By being polite, you are showing the people around you that you are prosocial – that you are willing to follow social norms, and to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of others. By engaging in politeness, you are proclaiming that you will also follow the more practical rules of etiquette and manners. This, in turn, allows others to feel comfortable interacting with you in hopes that you will make good on the implied promise to be an upstanding member of society.

I think that teenagers can relate to the concept of hats as signalling. By wearing a hat in school – a harmless but noticeable display of rule-breaking – you are clearly signalling. You are signalling that the school authority cannot control or regulate your self-expression (or to borrow a very outdated turn of phrase, that you are “too cool for school”). You are signalling that you are laid-back, and relaxed, and that strict rules of formality don’t concern you that much – and by doing so you are making some of your peers feel comfortable and relaxed around you as well. In some sense wearing a hat could be considered pro-social – that is, if the student in question wishes to firmly delineate students as a *separate* social group from teachers.

But you are also signalling to the adults in the building that you are anti-social, at least where they are concerned. You are telling us that you are not willing to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of the group. You are warning us to watch out for you because you do not follow the rules, and we generally take that warning seriously. Most teachers probably associate students who wear hats indoors with students who break other rules, who are often in trouble, and who do not perform well academically. When we see you with a hat inside we lower our expectations of you, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually end up hurting your education. And although we may consciously try not to discriminate against you, the social wiring which tells us to prefer members of the group to outsiders – a result of millions of years of evolution – basically ensures that we will fail. If you dress up like a problem student, we will see you as a problem student, and treat you as a problem student. Unconscious bias is hugely powerful. (And by the way, a benefit of school uniforms is that it helps to remove opportunities for that bias to manifest itself.)

And so to come back around to the question – what is the point of making students take off their hats – I think we can be very cynical and say that we have a rule against hats because we know that troublemakers will break the rule and then we will have a very obvious and easy way to identify them. Or, we can be more generous and say that the rule facilitates prosocial signalling among students and teachers, in order to improve educational outcomes by taking advantage of natural human tendencies to cooperate with members of the tribe in good standing and regard them more highly than outsiders or outcasts. So I have to revise my earlier, naive hypothesis: if we regard school education as a primarily social activity, there actually *is* educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat.


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2 Responses to On “Hats Off”

  1. Mariam says:

    I’ve lived in states for almost 10 years now and that ‘manner, rule’ as you call it applies to every school you go to. Elementary, Middle, or High school. Why should Georgia be any diferent, if they come to school they should study and learn that proper manners not play around.
    And I’ve been meaning to post and express my mind about this posts for a while but never really got a chance.
    Quick question why in the hell are you still living in here when every post of yours involves amd critics Georgia and its people in there. We Georgians have one Quote thats pretty true. “Sadac xar iqauri kidi unda daixuroo” -wherever you go/are, you have to fit their hat (meaning to adjust their life style not the other way around)
    So instead of criticizing everything about it over and over just try and deal with it or move to the different country where you’ll feel much more comfortable.


  2. Pingback: “Love it or Leave it” – On Cultural Narcissism | Georgia On My Mind

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