Editorial: 5 Social and Cultural Habits We Should Break

When one looks at the mundane living habits of humans in the 21st century, it is easy to point out the old, unnecessary things we do simply because “that’s how it’s always been done.” As a utilitarian, I tend to cut out the frivolous from my daily routine in favor of streamlined efficiency. There is too much to do and not enough time to do anything in, it seems.

However, there are very small habits that we do everyday as if they are an unconscious reflex that has been ingrained in our psyches since the dawn of humanity, yet serves literally no purpose. There are also much broader concepts that we, as Americans, do that no one else on the planet adheres to. I think, in an effort to make life a little simpler, there are things that could ultimately be removed from society and culture and no one would miss them.

Summer breaks from school.

Photo by Rhino Neal, via Flickr

Every May or June in America, students across the country fidget in their desks, staring at the clock, waiting for that bell to go off signaling the beginning of summer break. They yearn for school-free days where they can go to the beach, or on vacation with the family.

Most people think that summer break originated due to the need for children to be home helping on the farm back when most of America was agrarian. However, that is not true. Most rural schoolchildren attended school in the summer and the winter, taking the spring and fall off. Seeds needed sowing in the spring, and the harvest was in the fall.

Urban schools back then stayed open year round with voluntary attendance. Children were often sent to school while their parents worked, instead of being left home alone.

A standardized school calendar was not adopted until the late 19th century. Summer was deemed the part of the year when students could receive a break while teachers could study and improve their knowledge.

Most of the other industrialized nations on the planet work on a year-round schedule, giving shorter breaks in between semesters. This is done to ensure that students don’t forget what they learned the semester prior, which is a problem for American students. A popular alternative is the “45–15” school schedule, where students attend for 45 days and then get 15 days off. Also, instead of having every grade start at once, the schedule is staggered, making each grade level start in “waves.”

Saying “bless you” after someone sneezes.

Photo by mcfarlandmo, via Flickr

When it comes to being polite and having manners, this is one that just does not make sense to me. We utter this phrase after someone sneezes (or after every sneeze in a succession of sneezes, which ticks me off), yet we know that that person doesn’t have the plague. We also only say it after sneezes. Why not coughs? Or choking on one’s own saliva? Why do we say it at all when we know it literally does nothing?

The origin of this pointless habit can be traced back to Pope Gregory the Great, in the sixth century. It was coined during a bubonic plague epidemic, of which sneezing was a symptom. Other superstitions said that sneezing let demons in or one’s soul out, and saying “bless you” protected the sneezer or their soul from supernatural harm. We now know that none of this is real, so why do we still say it?

Considering it has religious connotation to it, “bless you” still reigns. It has been adopted into the unwritten rules of politeness. I have personally excommunicated the phrase from my daily vocabulary successfully, yet when I’m the recipient of a “bless you,” I still say thanks. When someone else sneezes, I tell them, “Stop sneezing.” They usually do.

“Women and children first!”

Illustration by Fortunino Matania, via http://shapersofthe80s.com/tag/titanic/

If you have watched any disaster movie, you have most likely witnessed the scene: the plane/boat/spaceship is about to crash/sink/explode, and the male crew members valiantly shuffle the women and children into parachutes/lifeboats/escape pods and stay behind to go down with the vessel.

Not only is this practice incredibly dumb, it is very sexist. Of course children should be first to be rescued, as they usually cannot serve any purpose on a sinking ship. They have all their lives to live, let them be first. However, I argue that the women can stay. There are fully capable women that could help out in a disaster situation. They don’t need to be rescued or saved.

I know I’m channeling Anita Sarkeesian here, but women are not things that need protecting from danger. They are full fledged human beings who can most likely fend for themselves. If they choose to leave on the lifeboat, then fine, but they should not be forced to simply because “someone needs to watch after the children.”

Symbolically taking off one’s hat.

Photo by Andrew Sorensen, via Flickr

At every sporting event in America, the national anthem is sung. And every time, the stadium PA announcer says, “Please rise and remove your hats for the national anthem.” This has always been a sign of respect for the anthem, the flag, and the country.

That is what taking off one’s hat is all about: respect. But why? What is so disrespectful about the top of one’s noggin? The practice started way back in Europe during the Medieval Era. Knights would remove their helmets or raise their visors to address monarchs to show that they meant no harm and were friendly. Modern soldiers adopted this policy and took off their hat in the presence of officers and other high ranking officials. However, that was stopped when policies changed and taking one’s hat off was considered breaking dress code.

According to the Levine Hat Company’s “Hat Etiquette” page:

A gentleman should generally remove his hat as he enters a building, including a restaurant, home, classroom, theater, church. This rule includes baseball caps and casual hats. Hats are to be removed when inside, except for places that are akin to public streets, e.g., lobbies, corridors, and elevators in public buildings. In public buildings, the elevator is considered a public area, and therefore an area where a gentleman may leave his hat on.

Why? Is it to show respect for the building one is in? The practice is even more confusing when women become involved:

For women, dress hats do not need to be removed when indoors. This rule of etiquette has developed out of the role of womens hats as an outfit-specific accessory as opposed to a general one. Where men may have many hats available to match a variety of outfits, women may match only one hat with a single outfit. By a similar rule, womens hats worn strictly for warmth should be removed when indoors.

When it comes to hat etiquette, I take my cues from the great George Carlin.

Saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, via Flickr

This one is going to be controversial, but hear me out.

The Pledge of Allegiance has been a staple of American classrooms for over 100 years. Every morning, millions of schoolchildren stand and salute the flag by putting their hands over their hearts, and reciting that iconic piece of American propaganda.

Actually, it was not meant to be propaganda. It was first written as a marketing slogan.

Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister from upstate New York, was hired by Youth’s Companion magazine in 1891 to work in the magazine’s marketing department. He was charged with designing a promotion for the upcoming 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World. One task he was given as part of the commemoration of the new Columbus Day was to write something that schoolchildren could recite in class. This new recitation would be shipped to schools all over the nation with new American flags and a subscription to Youth’s Companion.

Bellamy’s original version of the Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

A few words were changed to improve the cadence, but it essentially stayed the same until 1954, when “under God” was added as a jab to the godless Communist threat of the the time. Oh, and this was how children were advised to salute the flag while reciting the Pledge:

Photo via The Catholic Knight

Why should we stop saying it? For one, it’s causing a huge divide between students and their schools, thanks to the “under God” part. Second, it’s something not too many other countries do. In fact, I cannot find one instance of another country that has a pledge to their flag. There are oaths to nations, but not to flags.

When something as simple as the Pledge causes massive social disruption, it’s best to remove it. If one wants to say it, they have every right to. But the rest of us have the right to refuse to say it.

I know breaking these habits will be tough, but in the long run we will be better people for it. Dropping superstition, pointless etiquette, and blatant propaganda from educational institutions can only improve us. But, I can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do. So don’t feel offended when I stay silent after you sneeze, or stay seated when at a ballgame. I’m merely trying to improve myself by cutting the fat from my life. Speaking of fat, where’s the hot dog guy?