Q: How Do I Look? A: Like Everybody Else

As part of my people skills development and my communication coaching, I’ve also been looking a lot at personal appearance and business etiquette. There seem to be volumes of etiquette rules about the way you should dress, accessorize and look, in the business environment and beyond it.

For example, the following are 3 such rules I’ve heard or read over the last few days:

  • The only acceptable colors for men’s business suit are black, navy blue and gray;
  • Grey is the best color for a man’s business suit, as it is neutral and conventional;
  • Men should always wear a suit with a tie when meeting a client.

All I can say is: there are a lot of stuck up people out there! Some try to sell us the idea that respecting every minor etiquette rule about appearance is the way to project professionalism and make a great impression, while disregarding any of them is nothing short of a tragedy. I disagree, and I have the arguments to back it up.

You’re not fooling anyone. Sure, people still associate a well put together look with competence and professionalism. I’m not saying you should meet your clients wearing the free t-shirt from the last beer festival. But following every small etiquette rule about your appearance is taking it too far and can easily turn against you.

Why? Because people have started to get suspicious of persons with the 100% correct look. They realize it can be used as a manipulative trick, it can be planned to create a certain first impression which often has nothing to do with what’s beyond the surface.

Personally, every time I see a sales representative with the by the book sales person look (black suit, white shirt, red tie, big grim on his face), the first thought that comes into my mind is: “Watch out! He’s out to trick you out of your money!” The 100% correct look does not communicate authenticity and it’s simply not trustworthy. This leads me to me second point…

Expressiveness is the new wave in people skills. There is a new buzz word out there and it’s called “personal branding” (OK, actually 2 words). According to personal branding, in order to promote yourself and your services with great results, you need to identify what makes you unique and is relevant for the customer, then express it consistently in any context, through any communication channel. This includes your appearance.

Effective personal branding can only happen if you allow parts of your personality to shine and to reflect in your look. This means breaking some etiquette rules, dressing and accessorizing in a way that makes you stand out of the crowd, developing a personal style. And in the XXI century business world, this is becoming more and more important.

Stiff business etiquette about appearance is loosing ground. The fact of the matter is the way people dress in the business word has been changing quite a lot in the past decade. I’m no fashion expert but I think it’s gonna keep doing so for the next one. You can be a pioneer of this change and make an authentic look part of your people skills development, or… not.


  1. Hey Eduard.

    There sure isn’t much variety to the suits that are normal wear for men. There is some color or style variety, but I see what you are saying here.

    I agree completely with the way you characterize how we view people with perfect suits and certain types of behavior. You wonder if all the effort put in there is to come across as a professional, or if it is to be able to better convince customers of brand trustworthiness, whether it is there or not, or if it is a combination of both.

    Solid message about expressiveness there, because acting as we are, and still providing value to others, is way more useful that spending a lot of energy to seem a certain way and take advantage of others a certain way. It is the new way, or the old way we are bringing back.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Your Presence Means You Have A Fighting Opportunity =-.

  2. Hi Eduard,
    You bring up some excellent points here. As a female, I have always found “business” attire stifling and uncomfortable. However, after I completed my undergrad degree, I worked in customer service at a Fortune 100 company. Within three years I was promoted several times making over six figures in executive business sales while still in my mid-twenties. I dressed conservatively and “appropriately” (business suits, no real high heels, dark colors, no skirts). I noticed that a lot of my female colleagues, ones who dressed with more personal style, weren’t taken seriously by clients and weren’t promoted, either. The management always said “Don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want…” And I did. So there is something to be said as to what works in the corporate culture when it comes to promoting yourself and what you’re selling.

    I feel the same way you do about men in suits, though. That “sale-sy” feeling you get and want to put your guard up immediately. I do think this is changing, though. With technology leading the corporate culture, the dress has scaled down a bit… IT cultures have snubbed the corporate, stuffy business attire and the trickle down effect is real. Steve Jobs is a great example, as far as leadership goes.

    I hope the tide continues to turn in this area. I like comfort above all things. And to me, if someone looks well-groomed, I’m likely to listen to what they have to say, even if they are not in business attire. In fact, I might listen even more, because I won’t have the built-in defenses to sales pitch a classic business suit evokes in me.

    Miche 🙂
    .-= Miche | Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..3 Keys to Emotional Serenity =-.

  3. Hey Armen,

    Spot on as usually. I think how people see professionalism is changing. And how we communicate it needs to change also. Including the way we dress.

  4. Hi Miche,

    I can tell you like this topic from the length of your comment 🙂

  5. ps. I absolutely LOVE your blog design!!
    .-= Miche | Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..3 Keys to Emotional Serenity =-.

  6. Indeed I think of people wearing a suit that they want to fool me in some way. I don’t know really why.

    There are situations where a suit is appropriate, but many others when it’s inappropriate and it creates a barrier between you and the other people.
    .-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..How To Keep Track Of What You’ve Learnt =-.

  7. Hi Eduard, business casual is becoming the norm as far as I can tell. I hate the pretentious suit and I like people with a personal style. The formality of dress should be appropriate to the situation. I agree with Miche that people should be well groomed and sloppy or unkempt does say something.
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..How To Be Rich and Happy =-.

  8. Hey Oscar & Stephen,

    Yeah, I think there are situations when a suit is appropriate. I think they’re becoming fewer though. I usually wear jeans with a shirt and a suit jacket (no tie), which I would call semi-formal and really fits my style, and I get away with it even at big corporate conferences.

  9. Hey Eduard.

    I wrote a post a few weeks ago called how to stand out from the crowd and I was talking about exactly the same thing. If I’m invited to an event where the attire is smart dress I’ll either dress smarter than everybody else or less smart. I’ll wear or do subtle things that make me stand out from the crowd.

    From a marketing standpoint – I think it’s invaluable to create your own unique identity that does separate you from the rest of the crowd.
    .-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..Choose Your Inspirational Acronym For The Week =-.

  10. Hey Amit.

    Thanks for dropping by. I read that post. I think that was when I decided to write something on the same general topic. And voila! 🙂

  11. Suits only go so far, when a man opens his mouth you get to know what he is really like…so if you can’t fool anyone just keep typing on your bb.

  12. Ah personal branding. I write so one way personal branding shows up is in writing style. I’ve noticed mine has gone from serious to flowing to less-is-more stream-of-consciousness.

    I’ve had many jobs and the corporate culture it’s easy to get lost in the image. These days, living in Florida, working from home, my attire is comfortable–shorts and sandals!

    Thanks for bringing up some excellent insights about image.

    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..You don’t need no F-thing =-.

  13. Shorts and sandals. Mmm… sounds very relaxing…

  14. Eduard, first of all…GREAT post! Second, I’m glad I finally made my way to your blog because it is absolutely fantastic. Great information, great design, etc. You have a real winner here!

    .-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..The 5 Most Beautiful Things In Life That Are Invisible =-.

  15. Hey Dayne,

    Welcome and I’m glad I’ve made a good first impression.

  16. I totally agree Eduard being authentic is so much more important than following the the rules. When you are authentic people will feel it and like you often no matter how you look and what you wear.
    .-= Lana – DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Finding Your Life Purpose: The Most Powerful Way to Discover What You Truly Want In Life =-.

  17. Being authentic. I like that 🙂

  18. I was thinking about this post on my way to work this morning.

    I think it’s tough to look different in the work place. If you wear a suit then you are pretty much confined to the boring colours – wear a white suit and people will think you’ve teleported in from the 80’s.

    You could wear smart casual or just t-shirt and jeans as long as you are not concerned about first-appearances. I don’t judge people by what they wear but it’s difficult to know if other people do – first impressions do count and if you give a bad one to a new boss it’s hard to shake it off.

    I do try and mix things up a bit with my work wear. For women it’s easy as they just wear whatever as long as it’s smart – guys are expected to wear shirt and tie. But I do mix things up a bit – I change my hair, I shave sometimes and then not, I sometimes wear smart-casual. I’ve no idea what signal this is sending to others.

    You are right about people being suspicious of those who look super-smart – the perfectly groomed, new and sharp suited individuals do make you wonder if they have any actual skills to back up their visual attack.

    Lots of TV characters have their appearance as part of their personal brand (or have it created for them) – Homer Simpson always wears the same stuff, so does Freddy Krueger and Dennis The Menace. You could recognise them from their clothes alone.

    Great blog, glad I found it!

  19. Hey Steve,

    It can be a challenge to look different in the work place. But it get’s easier if you are willing to take some risks and look even a bit weird to some people. For example, I don’t wear a white suit but I do have 2 cream ones which I wear quite a lot.

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