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External Appearance as a Proxy for Professionalism

What you wear dictates the degree of your professionalism.

“Objection Your Honor!”, said the defendant’s lawyer wearing his sunglasses, a hawaiian T-shirt, a pair of bright orange shorts and flip flops.

Okay, okay I stop. I will not try to draw conclusions on professionalism and external appearance by using ridiculous examples. By I achieved my point, I made you (mentally) smile on this unrealistic small story: a lawyer being inappropriately dressed for the professional occasion trying to defend their customer.But why is this example ridiculous really?

Why lawyers and bankers are dressed with expensive suits and colourful ties? 
Why programmers are dressed with buggy jeans and dull coloured shirts and let’s not forget about the beanies and the bushy beards? 
Why blue collar employees wear heavy duty overalls? 
Why architects wear metal framed glasses and rollnecks?
Why actors and artists are dressed with edgy and provocative outfits?

Well in the occasion of blue collar employees I believe it is a matter of functionality and freedom of movement. So that was an easy one.

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But about the rest? What is the social contract that constitutes the clothes as a proxy for someone’s professionalism, creativity, or sophistication?

Maybe it is some kind of societal lag. Back in the day, a couple or more centuries ago, bankers and lawyers were only the people who had access to proper education and were able to pay their way in in those “closed” professions. Clothes were a by-product of their societal superiority and status. And as they were becoming more and more successful and powerful, they were able to live a lavish lifestyle and to treat themselves with even better clothes. Expensive clothes was a great indicator of a person’s success in their profession.

On the other hand, the profession of programmers who is exponentially more recent, is completely decoupled from any kind of external appearance standards and limitations. The IT peeps just need to be decent in coding in order to be regarded professional. External appearance, as long as it is not unhygienic, it will be probably one of the last criteria in a recruiter’s checklist before hiring a programmer.

And as far as architects and actors are considered, external appearance is manifestation of their personality and the ability to stand out from the crowd. Architects want to appear sophisticated and well educated, hence they will seek for clothes which will denote this kind of profile. Actors and artists will strive to showcase their flamboyant personality and their creative side by attempting eccentric garment combinations and by using unnecessary accessories.

But, you will ask me, Thanos why should I care about all this?

Well, if you are not amazed by the fact that you need to advertise the level of your professionalism by utilizing the equivalent type of garments then I judge you for not thinking the social implications this phenomenon has.

From my personal experience as a finance professional, I have noticed difference in my stakeholders’ behavior and attention towards me depending on the clothes that I am wearing on a specific day. When I am participating in a business discussions while wearing a navy blue suit and a tie, my colleagues will pay more attention to my opinion and will place more gravity on my arguments. When I am showing up in the office with my chinos and my beige sweater, the same people will treat my opinion as a friendly advice and there is a high chance that they will deviate from my recommendation.

Same person, same opinions, same insights, different impact. And the only difference is the external appearance.

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And as I am getting to the root cause of this problem, I have ended up on two possible explanations:

  • A representable external appearance that is in line with what is considered as “professional” on a specific group of professionals can create a reinforcing halo effect. You look the part and, as a consequence, you should be performing the part as well. But this sounds like a scary but not unrealistic conclusion to draw.
  • “Professional” sartorial outfits are giving you an esoteric unconscious assertiveness boost. Meaning that you are more confindent in your abilities and skills because you know that your physical appearance is complementing your inner professionalism.

Both of them sound quite realistic and their co-existence is not improbable. Maybe it is a “chicken or the egg?” Kind of conundrum.

But the one think you might need to take from this post before you go is the following:

*Takes off rectangular glasses and cracks fingers*

External appearance do matters when it comes to professional performance. And it is both you and your colleagues, customers, vendors and stakeholders that would benefit from you looking the part.

Apparently it makes a hell lot of difference.


Originally posted at Thanos Antoniou — The voice inside my head

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