Does Your Appearance Affect Your Influence?

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I teach fitness. See, I teach a class on Sunday mornings. It’s usually the same core group of people who come. After all, it is 8:30 in the freaking morning on a Sunday. I can appreciate that the time of day doesn’t necessarily attract the mainstream crowd.

In any case, this morning I had a good group in my class. There were even a number of new people who showed up. Just as the class was about to begin one more newbie arrived. She was a hooded figure in a black silk boxer’s robe bearing the word “Villain” in the back. As she removed her hood, she revealed a thick head of long jet black hair and vibrant tattoos from her neck down to her midriff. This was clearly a new person. I would have remembered her otherwise.

As the class progressed, I noticed that the other ladies were careful not to gaze at her too long, though I know that they were as amazed as I was. This goth princess was crazy fit. Lean, muscular, not an ounce of excess fat on her. She killed all the advanced moves like a pro. Unbeknownst to her, she amplified the intensity of the entire class, as I had to up my game to keep her working. We were in awe… at least I was. Between her goth, her physique, and her athleticism, she clearly makes a statement when she walks into a room. So I got to thinking: How does your appearance affect how you are perceived ?

Can we Help but Judge Books by their Covers?

As our gaze met sometime during the class, I saw that her eyes were soft. She seemed to be a kind person. But you would never have guessed judging by the elaborate Celtic pattern covering her neck and back. We always say that we shouldn’t ever judge a book by its cover. But the fact of the matter is that there is always an element of judging. It’s called thin slicing. It’s human nature. We need it for survival.

Malcolm Gladwell talked about this in his book Blink . We as human beings need to thin slice. Often it works to our advantage. It’s that feeling that we get when we detect a lie. It guides us. It helps us make decisions quickly. What if we didn’t have this mechanism? Think of all the meetings we have attended where we had to strike up a steering committee to make decisions. We do countless feasibility studies. We analyze for weeks so that we can determine the best choice in which to move forward. If we relied on our conscious brain to make all of the decisions in our lives, do you understand that we would get nothing done?

Thankfully we, as humans, are geared to thin slice. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses, we use our subconscious brain to make split-second decisions – No. Not even split-second. We make split nano-second decisions so that we can move forward quickly. Call it what you will: intuition, or your gut feel. Whatever you call it, it is your subconscious mind giving you instantaneous guidance whether or not something feels good or bad, or whether it’s something in which we ought to move forward. That’s thin slicing.

Does Your Appearance Affect Your Influence?

After the class, I wondered if interacting with people is actually harder for her because of her shocking personal style? She could be the smartest person in the world, and obviously the fittest person likely in any group. But I wondered how well she was able to influence people. How easy was it for her to sell her ideas when people had to constantly strive to look past the outer layer? I suppose it would be dependent on the subject. I would take her authority on artsy subjects, I’m sure. But in a corporate setting, I surmise that it would be a steep uphill battle.

There is a reason why we need to conform to corporate attire. Ok. I get that it’s ironic that I, of all people, discuss this very topic, since I am known for pushing the envelope on more than one occasion. No matter how far we’ve come in the digital age, how many hoodied billionaires there be, at the end of the day, the clothes still make the man (or woman, of course.)

The Perception of Attire has Changed

We have this saying in Chinese:

“Seen ging law yee, how ging yun,”

…which translates to…

“First the rich outfit is respected, then the person is respected.”

I remember a TED talk that I’d seen recently. It was about how the clothes we wear has actually shifted in perception over the last number of years. For example, twenty years ago, if we saw a person in a hoodie and another in a black business suit with a pair of aviators, we’d probably assume that the person in the business suit and shades was, in fact, the VIP. We might assume that he was the person who made the decisions. He was the Grand Poobah. And the guy in the hoodie was his kid. But now, thanks to the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, and other casual billionaires, we now assume that the opposite is true. We would assume that the person in the hoodie might be in charge. We might even figure that the person in the black shades was, perhaps, the bodyguard, even without seeing the tell-tale ear piece.

Related: The Simplest Ways to Use Body Language to Convey Confidence

Dress for Success

So what does that have to do with us in the corporate world? IT has traditionally been known for its casual attire standards since the dawn to the first generation dot-com companies. Californian executives showed up in surf shorts and Birkenstocks. This has set the tone for work attire in IT as we know today.

Depending on the company, work attire in IT is generally business casual to casual. What does that mean? It’s different for men and women. Generally business casual means no jeans. You’re not necessarily in business suit. (You’re definitely not in a business suit.) For women, this definition is has a lot more leeway. I won’t necessarily delve into a study of fashion. However, one thing’s for sure. Whether the attire is business casual or casual, your grooming is the most important.

Here are some general guidelines to command respect regardless your personal style:

Be Pressed to Impress

The number one rule for any work attire is to never wear anything that is wrinkly. For goodness sake, it’s not that big a deal to iron something, you guys. Whip out that damn ironing board, fill the iron with water and press your shirt. This shouldn’t be rocket science. If you were able to get a computer science degree, you can iron a shirt.

Clothes that Fit the Person, Maketh

The second universal rule to dressing appropriately is to select clothes that fit.
Guys, pay attention to the length of your pants. You should not see any part of your ankle when you stand up. If you can, that means that when you sit, you’ll show half your shin. Not cool. Oh, and I might as well throw this in here: Dark socks, dark pants. Light socks, light pants. White sweat socks, gym. Only.

Ladies, sorry to say, clothes that are too form fitting are not appropriate for work. The cocktail dress that you wore to the club last Saturday is still not appropriate, even if you put a cardigan on over it.

On the flip side, clothes that are too big also do nothing to get you subconscious respect. It makes you look sloppy. Choose clothes that fit, not too big, not too small.

Your Head Finishes the Outfit

I can’t believe that this is even an issue. Your hair is part of your outfit. Really you need to ensure that your hair is tidy. Over the years, I’ve worked with client sites all over North America. I have had the privilege working with people of a wide variety. Not enough of them pay enough attention to their hair. It’s either too long or hasn’t been washed or styled. There might be a cowlick on a Tuesday, a combover on Thursday. You may not think that this contributes to your overall outfit. But i’m going to let you in on a secret. It does. It makes a statement for you. It doesn’t matter if you are in head to toe haute couture. If your hair is unwashed and unkempt, you’re still sloppy. Clients hire you not only for your skill. They hire you for your appearance, your professionalism, and your confidence. You’ll be surprised how much the keratin growing out the top of your head matters to your confidence. It is all one package.

Make Sense of the Scents

While I’m on the subject of secrets, you know what else contributes to your overall outfit? The way you smell. Though you can’t physically see it, some can make people tear by the odour they emit. I’m not even talking about the usual suspects like B.O, and halitosis. I’m talking about overdoing it with the cologne and eau de parfum.

Here are some hard rules from which never to deviate:

Wear deodorant. Even if you don’t think you need it. Wear it. You need it. If you’re over 12 years old, you need deodorant. Everyone sweats. Honestly, you guys, how can you justify charging a three figure bill rate if you smell like a petri dish?

Speaking of petri dishes, take a shower, already. With soap. Daily. I used to work in a lab that I shared with multiple other folks. I caught onto their showering schedule: Mondays. On Monday, the air was fresh, and everyone was happy. As the week progressed, the room became increasingly suffocating. By Friday, it was a blessing to work from home.

Stay hydrated. With water. I get that we all enjoy a cup of joe in the morning, and maybe even periodically throughout the day. With coffee comes coffee breath. It happens to the best of us. But this can be handled by staying well hydrated throughout the day. Coffee dries the body. Dry mouth causes odour. Offensive odour. So drink water. Oh and having minty somethings close at hand are always helpful as well.

Dab the cologne. Don’t bathe in it. A couple of drops on your neck is all it takes. Many offices even have a strict policy against wearing scented anything, cologne, scented body lotion or others. Do you recall the original purpose of perfume? It was to cover up foul odour because it was considered harmful to take a bath. Thankfully, humanity has progressed past this ridiculous notion and it’s definitely beneficial to bathe. So cool it the perfume, will you? And see Rule #2.

I could go on. There are some universal laws that apply to all of us, regardless our personal style. You’re far from invisible. Everything you do and how you show up makes a statement about you. You are a multi-faceted diamond. Make every surface shine.