Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Does it matter how I dress?

I had an interesting debate with a friend of mine recently about why we need to take care in dressing up the way we do and whether it is essential at all to take that much care in our attire. The whole conversation started when I jokingly said that I am going to go the RMS way and grow a mustache and a beard.

In today's society people give a lot of importance to appearances. It is no longer about how neat we dress, but how costly we dress. This depressing tendency has pervaded even developing countries like India. Probably a consequence of the growth of a set of extremely rich trend setters or probably because of the increase in affordability of riches and luxuries.

People not only want to dress rich but also rate others on how they dress. Sometimes this results in funny ironies in the way people dress. In India, known for its high temperatures and humidities, senior IT professionals try to imitate their European and American counterparts and dress in formal suits. They do this because they do not want to be placed on a different tier when they interact with their counterparts previously mentioned. This happens only because there is a prevalent notion, most probably true, that people rate other people based on how they dress.

It is fun to notice how people treat you (on an average) when you walk into an office unshaved and when you walk in clean shaved. When you walk in clean shaved and well dressed people normally will treat you with more respect and more attention than when you walk in dishevelled. Of course this does not apply to cases where the people in the office know you well.

The above deduction will stand true when you meet people randomly in a social gathering or in a professional gathering. So it is as if there is a social mind set prevalent among most people that rate people high or low accordingly as their attire and appearances. There is a rational explanation of this mind set. On an average there is a good probability for a person taking care of his appearances take good care in grooming his capabilities as well.

There is another small theory that has to be considered alongside the above one. A man has only certain amount of time to dedicate for all his different tasks. Most people run at less than 100% efficiencies and they would be able to do justice to all of their tasks. However those who are running at close to their 100% efficiencies will have a problem. Any increase in time allocated for any of their activities will eat into the time available for other activities. Now all of the tasks performed by such people will not be contributing to their efficiencies. So theoretically he can cut down on the time on unproductive tasks to give more time on the productive tasks. This can be explained with a simple example as given below.

Suppose a person has a simple set of 4 tasks - Sleeping - 8 hrs, Dressing Up - 1 hr, Travelling - 2 hrs, Working - 13 hrs. Work is where he actually produces something of value. Now if his work is not affected by the way he dresses (sometimes it does as in the case of a marketing executive) the 1 hr he spends on dressing up is a total waste as far is productivity is concerned. Same is the case with traveling. If however he reduces the time he spends on sleeping and instead use that for working he will slowly start seeing a reduction in the actual productivity because of a lack of rest. Similarly for marketing executives, spending time on dressing might actually increase their productivities.

Again there is another scenario that is worth looking at. Suppose you are an IT professional who has an idea that you would like to present to a group of investors. Even if the only thing that the investors are going to look at is your idea, if you think that there is a slightly better chance of you landing a deal if you go in formal attire, you should.

Psychologists give another reason why one should dress well. This might not apply to those people who don't give a damn to the way they dress and totally unaffected by the way they dress irrespective of the group of people they are in the midst of. Dressing well usually gives a more confident feel to those people who are aware of the notion that other people will look at the way you dress (read it as most people - at least in Kerala). It is interesting in this context to note that the notion is less strong in developed countries like US and UK and more strong in countries like India.

It is basically a decision that you have to make regarding the way you dress. Ultimately what matters is how you feel and not how others feel. If you think you should, you should; if not, you shouldn't.

There are a couple of seemingly contradicting sayings that relate to appearances - "Do not judge a book by its cover" and "First impression is the best impression". The first one is the general rule for all people to follow and the second one is a conclusion given the fact that most people do not follow the first rule.


  1. Well said! Sometimes people are forced to "keep up with the Joneses". And yes, the trend is more prevalent in developing countries than in others.

  2. I know this muc about the IT scenario : At places where client interaction happens , people must dress well whether they like it or not - its important for the business. For a product based company , that rule doesn't apply. Only marketing dudes and some top level people meet the clients.

    And i have seen that people dress well and rely on their appearence to force their ideas through. Even though it sounds funny to me , generally people do accept a well dressed idiot more than a dishevelled genius , provided they have no prior knowledge.

    There is one more thing. The RMS trend. That is also a powerful method that conveys that you are a self proclaimed geek. I think this is because there is a generally accepted geek image and conforming to this might yield results.

    Your appearance does matter when ou deal with general public. :D

  3. carbonmonoxide - I liked the way you mentioned 'well dressed idiot'. It is sad but it is quite true - people judge based on appearances. Think of the time people waste in putting up a good appearance :)

  4. Trust me the geek image thing works , but only with non geek types :D

  5. CO - that would mean, it will work with the majority of people :)

  6. My experiences with my beard and its impact on others have been quite interesting especially because, I seldom get affected or think about my beard, but the first time viewers often seem to get shaken off their grounds!

    I have been lucky not to be in the "appearance-mattering" software services industry where having a beard is more criminal than many other culpable offences. I have had my way in deciding the frequencies of shaving all along which I consider is a very important aspect of personal freedom! Actually, I have observed that there is a notion among Indians that a clean shaven face is more handsome than the opposite. My argument is quite different. If you are good-looking, you should look good with and without the beard. If you look good only without beard, there is some missing element of completeness in your own handsomeness or in your perception.
    When you shave after a long time, most of the people including you find you are more handsome than ever! Its the rate of change that matters. The aim should be to maximise the d/dt!

    Recently, during the rugby world cup there was a guy from France. Il s'appele Chabal! He was nicknamed "l'homme des cavernes" or the cave-man! Just a random fact about the media response to a beard.

    Beard is natural. Just like hair on the head. The damage you inflict on the skin at every shave should be simply big! Imagine shaving off every hair from the body frequently like some Bollywood machos do.

    Its also a symbol of failed love in the Indian context. Funny, isnt it ? It symbolises the lack of the urge to live and depressionist tendencies to some. Actually, it is laziness or the belief that you can do better things at those times of wielding the razor!

    There will be associations formed by beard-growers. They will voice their concerns at the deprecating looks of the public. Some day, the court will rule that such activities are against the spirit of freedom of expression. But, the number of folks who believe in "no beard, the better you look" will never come down.

  7. I have been running a small experiment with my life wrt to my beard for the last 2 months and the experience has been mixed. There has been protests from some quarters while there has been acceptance from some others. None of these concerns me and it has been interesting to see the general response. The best part of it is that I am still the Anoop that I was without the beard but for the inevitable evolution of thoughts and ideas :). I was thinking of adding another post with the results of the experiment some time later but that Anand has brought up the topic I thought I might as well spill the beans.

  8. Mm yeah psychologists covered the reasoning I was going to give. That to a person who feels insecure about how he looks is likely to spend all those 13 working hours worrying what he ended up looking like because he didnt use the usual 1 hour of dressing up. So in his case productivity is affected more if he doesnt use that 1 hour.

    And then of course there is the contradictory assumption here that work is the only activity producing something of value. I know a lot who wouldnt agree- that its not just work, value being a completely relative term.

  9. @Cris - Shall I just rephrase the definition of work - Anything that creates value is work :-). When the solution does not solve the problem, redefine the problem to use the same solution.

  10. Doesn't your beard itch you once a while? :)

    Does it matter how I dress? The answer is 'Oh Yeah!' w.r.to your article and it is the same thing I have to say. Whether it is abt dressing simply, in a time-saving mode or in a time-wasting mode, both has its own benefits!

    From my experiences... I have been on a 20+ days India trip around 7 years before, and almost throughout the journey I had worn a kaavi mundu. It wasn't formal dressing and Yes it was simple, light, easy wash-dry and all. However, I felt that people whom I met throughout the journey responded more to my body language, smiles, my behavior and the way I communicated, than my dress. Probably, the sadhu dressing might have had a positive effect instead of a negative one, and I was granted with free accomodation and food at various junctures of my journey.

    The craziness on wearing ties and overcoats whether it is a school or office, especially in a country with humid climate, is one thing I could never understand or I simply refuse to understand!!

    Fortunately, for the type of work I am doing, the dress code is too relaxed, whether it is in India, Italy or Japan. Probably I took this work because of the relaxed dresscode and the underlying physics towards it? So does it matter how I dress? Surely!

    Ahh too much crap for the day. Baaki later.

  11. @rocksea - Interesting to note that you were offered free accomodation and food and that your sadhu dressing might have resulted in this.
    BTW there is an update on this experiment. Zyxware has been pushing forward with its marketing initiatives and as part of this I have been attending more formal business meetings these days. It is funny to note the strange expressions on the faces of the people, who very likely never expected CEOs with unkempt beards. I don't think that this has negatively affected the result of these meetings meetings because these meetings normally give these people fairly sufficient time to rate me according to my technical/verbal skills instead of my appearance. Even then the initial shock is interesting to watch :-)