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January 17, 2009

Dress for Success and Bourgeois Angst

In my day job, I wear appropriate business attire at work because it's a cultural expectation and a condition of employment. I'm ok with that; I wore uniforms in the Navy, I can easily adhere to dress codes. Although I've always acceded to it under protest, this last week I saw that Bourgeios Angst I've integrated the "dress meme" into my own thinking, and I'm wondering where that puts me on the Pragmatic vs. Bourgeois spectrum. I wonder if I've become "the organization man".

I resisted the "dress meme" for a long time, but one key event (and subsequent experience) a long time ago taught me that clothing and appearance do, in fact, matter - although I really would prefer that they didn't.

I was working an office job, dressed in office-lite (dockers, button-downs, necktie) and on the way home I stopped at an auto-supply warehouse for a two muffler clamps and a pipe sleeve - my Isuzu pickup's muffler pipe had rusted through, and I planned to repair the hole rather than replace the muffler.

Somehow, the parts man behind the counter was quite put off. He couldn't tell me what size exhaust pipe I'd need from his manuals (although I know it's in there), was generally uncooperative, said they didn't have pipe sleeves and ended up telling me, "Sorry we can't help you".

I went home, changed out of my work clothes (slacks, tie) for my work clothes (worn jeans and my high-school gas station shirt) and I got under the truck, wrestled with the muffler, and got the measurements I needed. When you do muffler work in a driveway, you get covered pretty thoroughly in the rusty flakes that fall down on you.

I went back to the parts warehouse hoping to catch a different guy, but it was late in the day and he was the only one left working the counter. I approached him cold and said I need a 3.5 inch pipe sleeve, and wire-hanger brackets for either end of it. He looked at me, with my gas-station shirt and rusty head, smiled and said "Sure, hold on a minute". He came back, gave me all the parts I needed - all the nuts and washers were there; he wrote up a discounted bill, charged me, and told me to have a nice day. It was obvious he'd never connected the Tie with the Mechanic.

I took the parts home, played amateur with the hacksaw, and repaired the exhaust pipe. I spent about $10 and avoided a garage bill. I carried that truck for years of rusting away. Later on I thought about my two very different experiences at the parts store.

bourgeios angstdress for successSame guy, same request; very different appearances yielded very different results. When I thought about it I hated it, because until then I'd rejected the "dress for success" mindset. Now I know that people who know you evaluate you for who you are and what you do, but people that don't know you will absolutely draw clues from your appearance. It took a counter man in a parts warehouse to convince me.

Dress for SuccessSo I took the lesson as learning and acted on it. I thought it was a silly thing but something I could live with, an anthropological oddity like saying "God bless you" each time somebody sneezes - dubious but harmless.

That was a long time ago. I don't have the pickup anymore, and I don't fit into my high school mechanic's shirt anymore. This week I saw myself as the guy on the other side of the desk. Usually by the time I recognize things about myself, the condition's not new.

I was scheduled to interview a candidate. Good resume, solid references - I'd called them and they spoke well of him. I left him waiting in the foyer while I reviewed his resume and the requirements one last time. My boss, who generally avoids meeting applicants, saw him waiting and was so impressed at the appearance - obviously shined shoes, a pressed suit, a recent haircut - it was such a contrast to a lot of interviews that we see, that my boss went over and introduced himself and spent a few minutes with him.

The interview went very well. Afterward I realized that he had us all at the first impression, and that impression shaped every subsequent interaction. It wasn't just the spit-and-polish; the interview was excellent - he showed a lot of preparation, a serious and disciplined approach, a mature perspective - you'd want this one working with you. But I allowed the first impression to set the tone.

When I consider how I've clearly moved into the paradigm I once rejected, I wonder if I've become that guy, as in "don't be that guy". I've taken Tom Rath (the man in the gray flannel suit) as my exemplar as a counter point to the organization man, and I wonder about compromise and corruption.
Gollum as a British Shav : Dress for Success


CFluck said...

Interesting post that should be widely read and thought about. Becoming our parents or the sold out organizational man is a phenomenon that we all, if we live long enough, seem to encounter. Hopefully, we are moving toward a society where we can all live a more authentic life, less shackled by appearances and more driven by the common good. You may want to check out Robert Coles' collection of business stories in his "Minding the Store." I wouldn't be so fast to credit your good feelings to his spit and polished appearance, especially since his appearance dovetailed so neatly with his spit and polished preparation. This consistency might have been the true source of you visceral response.

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