It’s been way too long since I last put the virtual pen to paper over here, and I think my mini-hiatus is up because I’ve had a bit of inspiration (and I owe you guys anyway). Gini Dietrich — entrepreneur, businesswoman, and someone I greatly respect — ruffled a few feathers on her blog last week by claiming that people shouldn’t wear jeans for professional speaking gigs. Her argument is that in her profession — our profession, really, and that would be the digital/social media/social business one — people complain about not having a seat at the boardroom table, but dress as if they don’t deserve that seat.
My response to her was that attire is dictated by corporate culture, and it can appear to be a misrepresentation of your company if you’re presenting in a business suit when your organization has a casual culture (or vice versa). There’s also a certain intimidation factor that comes with business suits, and I think it’s important to be aware of those deeper emotional ties we all have to dress code.
Gini’s post got my mind spinning a bit, because I do believe in the clothes making the (wo)man, so to speak, but to what degree are we weighing someone’s appearance against their professional acumen and knowledge?
How do we define what a professional should look like anymore? Is wearing jeans taken to be disrespectful in a professional setting? Or does a bit of dressing down invite more conversation and connection? Is a company less successful because its corporate culture is more casual? And if the way I dress doesn’t affect your perception as to the value of the content I provide, where does the inappropriateness lie?
In that unreasonably long list of questions, I think there are two that really need hashing out: Is wearing jeans taken as a sign of disrespect in a business setting? And, if the way I dress doesn’t necessarily affect your perception of the value of the content I present, where does the inappropriateness of my jeans lie?
In a larger sense, what impressions are we trying to make these days by dressing “down” in the business world, and where does the value truly lie in dressing up? How shallow are we, and is that “shallowness” not that shallow after all?
Respect — Self and/or Otherwise
Gini and I took the conversation to Twitter and she asserted that her point was purely her opinion about the inappropriateness of jeans in the business world, not about clothes being a reflection of someone’s expertise or that jeans are a deal breaker for doing business.
My interpretation of the purity of her stance is that jeans are inappropriate because they demonstrate a casualness toward business and toward our professional colleagues and peers that could be seen as disrespectful, especially in a setting, like speaking, in which you’re acting as a teacher or mentor.
In another sense, dressing down could also be seen as a lack of self-respect, as if you don’t take yourself or your position within your organization seriously.
If we toss the respect part of this equation out of the picture — if jeans aren’t a sign of disrespect — what defines appropriate business attire, then? Content, hopefully, is the real selling point of a presentation, and if that’s true, too, then we’re really stuck. What the hell is appropriate?
Historically speaking, white-collar business has always been a formal affair — suits, boardrooms, golf courses. But that tradition has also created a sense of exclusivity in business that makes people (executives, namely) appear inaccessible. The men in suits are the brain trust, and the rest of us are just the cogs that put their ideas into action. They ideate; we execute. There’s distinct a split there between business functions.
But with the shifts in our economy, the increasing openness of communication, the maturing of a younger generation that’s pushing the envelope of traditional business, and the push for hyper-connectivity all playing together, there are times the formality of old business almost feels inappropriate. As if tradition is standing in the way of progress.
What Are We Trying to Prove?
At the end of the day, what are we trying to prove by dressing up — or down? What impression are we trying to leave? And do we have real proof that the impression we want to leave is actually the impression people are taking home with them? I think we need to look at these questions from both sides.
In my world, the clothes make the initial impression of a man, but the work he does seals the deal. Sometimes the best gifts are wrapped in the plainest of paper. Does that mean a suit doesn’t help his cause? As is true with most things in life: It depends.
Lest you think an argument of this sort is overly superficial, there are much bigger sociological implications and questions floating around under the surface here. I haven’t grasped onto all of them yet, but maybe we can dig them out here.
What’s your take? Are jeans inappropriate attire for a speaking engagement? How do you feel about this slow shift into a more casual business climate? Is the tradition of formal business attire a tradition worth keeping, or are the underlying implications attached to that kind of formality holding us back?