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Dress for success? Decide on your goals, then act to reach them, by David A. Wheeler
Friday, April 07 2006 @ 11:51 AM EDT

Dress for success? Decide on your goals, then act to reach them
~ by David A. Wheeler

In March 2006, Peter Quinn (former Massachusetts chief information officer (CIO), made comments about clothing that set off a bizarre firestorm of news and discussion. His comments were noted in ZDNet Australia's article, "Sandals and ponytail set cramp Linux", CNET's article 'Sandal and ponytail set' cramping Linux adoption?, and many others. There were even articles in Linux Weekly News (LWN) and Slashdot.

What did Quinn say? He simply stated that the appearance of many free-libre / open source software (FLOSS) developers detracts from FLOSS adoption. "Open source has an unprofessional appearance, and the community needs to be more business savvy in order to start to make inroads in areas traditionally dominated by [proprietary] software vendors. [Having] a face on a project or agenda makes it attractive for politicians [to consider open source]."

Guess what? He's right.

I wear a tie almost every day, and like it. Why? It's not the tie itself; I don't care either way. Clothing is merely external; I believe changing clothing does not change who the wearer is in any fundamental way. But I learned a long time ago that a trivial amount of money (for a suit and tie) greatly increases the odds of someone trusting my words in many cultures -- particularly those with money. So with a small outlay of my own money, I'm more likely to cause changes in the directions that I believe are really important. I have bigger goals than changing what people wear; I'd rather wear a tie (as they request), and try to achieve the goals I really care about. Think of it as social hacking, or a money amplifier, if you like.

The fact is, people judge others by appearance. Pretending this is not true doesn't change the truth. What's more, you're unlikely to stop people from judging by appearance; universal genetic engineering on humans would probably be required.

Experts in influencing people have known about the importance of appearance for years. Dale Carnegie said, "There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it." Many people think judging on appearance is a good thing, because appearance is something that can be controlled. It isn't as easy to explain at a deeper level why people judge based on clothing and such; Ian Lynch says that "If they expect you to make an effort and you don't, you are signalling 'You are of no real value to me'." Certainly, if you want to convince someone of something, you need to consider their feelings, not just your own.

But in the end, the reasons don't matter; people judge based on appearance, and you need to live in reality. One comment on Slashdot (by Kadin2048) reported that "when I'm 'dressed for work' and go out into the world, the level of service and attention I receive is pretty significantly different... People are politer, service is faster... My experiences are probably region-specific... but in an area filled with white-collar corporate and government types... if you want to be taken seriously it's pretty obvious how you want to present yourself... if you're selling something -- as a whole lot of OSS developers effectively are, whether they realize it or not -- [you must match] your appearance to your client or intended buyer." You can whine about clothing and such... or use them as a tool to achieve the goals you really care about. I recommend thinking about your appearance (including clothes) as a tool.

The fundamental rule is simple: Figure out what your most important goals are, and then adjust your appearance (wherever you are) to help you achieve those goals. The optimal clothing generally depends on who you are talking to (particularly what culture they're from) and what the specific event is. There are events held by academics where showing up in a suit and tie will get you dismissed as a know-nothing. Conversely, in many formal meetings/presentations with government officials or businessmen, showing up in ratty jeans means that your message will be considered untrustworthy, and they're more likely to do exactly what you wish they would not do. If your life's primary goal is to "never wear a tie" then don't wear a tie; although this seems a truly petty life goal. And I'm going to work circles around any other goals you have, if you've chosen clothing as your most important goal. My goal is to make the world a better place, and I'm happy to use the tools available to me (including my clothing) to achieve my goals.

Figuring out exactly what's best to wear is trickier, of course. Usually the best thing to do is simply ask ahead of time. Sometimes wearing nice casual clothes, being clean, and having an overall neat appearance is what's needed. In other circumstances "intermediate" business clothes are a good idea. By that, I mean for men a tie, collar shirt, slacks, and polished dress shoes; for women, a nice blouse with a skirt or slacks, or a dress, with dressy shoes.

Some of the cultures with the most money and influence expect the most conservative clothing, particularly if you're trying to convince them to make a decision in your favor. For men, that's a dark tailored suit, white long-sleeved collar shirt, conservative tie, and polished black dress shoes (yes, you get rated on the shoes). For women, some say it's wiser to wear a skirt than pants in such environments, because skirts are universally accepted. There are lots of books and websites that will give you the gory details on business attire; John Malloy's books are often cited if you need to know how to dress up on the conservative end. Washing up, including clean fingernails and well-groomed hair, is wise everwhere. Being slightly overdressed is usually better than being underdressed.

If you're a man and love your long hair, find a way to at least make it attractive; greasy long hair is really nasty to almost everyone. I met a native American Indian whose tribe places great value on long hair; at a formal business meeting he wore a full suit with vest, tie, and so on, and neatly braided his hair with ties that were clearly Indian in origin (showing his heritage).

Much depends on the event; often, after a formal business meeting, there may be another gathering afterwards with very different expectations. The key is to be sensitive to the expectations.

Eric S. Raymond has also stated that clothing is important in advocacy, and tells people to "dress to persuade" (good idea!). He suggests a slightly different approach for FLOSS developers: the "Prince from Another Country" approach. This term is from science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad; Spinrad defines this as adopting "the attitude of being a high-ranking member of a different hierarchy". Eric dresses well but casually, "the way hackers dress in the movies", with a neat polo shirt made of good fabric, slacks, and high-end walking shoes. Eric claimed back in 2000 that "a technology advocate dressed in a business suit would tend to come across as a bad imitation of a business person". If you think the "prince from another country" approach is most likely to be effective in a particular circumstance, use it. But this strategy can be complicated to apply; it requires that the other person (1) view you as a member of a different hierarchy, (2) view that hierarchy as unknown or acceptable, and (3) view you as a prince of it. I think this strategy is more likely to work if you are from a different country, since you're somewhat outside their hierarchy to start with (Eric often travels). Unfortunately, after the Internet bubble burst, a lot of businesspeople decided that the casually-dressed communities were not to be trusted; being a prince of an untrustworthy group will harm, not help, your cause. Also, being viewed as a "prince" is much easier if you have a well-known name; this is easy for people like Linus Torvalds, but if you're not in the press a lot, that may not be as convincing. I think today, traditional business attire is often more likely to work in the more traditional environments -- particularly if you're not famous and you're in your own country. In any case, you still need to look neat and sharp -- not like you just rolled out of bed. The point is to use clothes as a tool when you're trying to advocate an idea -- think about the other person, not just yourself.

All of this has nothing to do with what you wear when you're not visibly interacting with others. Insight Express and SonicWall's survey of telecommuters found that one in eight male teleworkers and one in 14 female teleworkers do their jobs in the nude. Even more amusingly, less than half of the women and only one in three men shower every day if they work from home. Amusing, but who cares? -- They're not interacting physically with people then. But the rules change when you're visible to someone else... you have to consider their needs, and their culture, if you want to convince them of something.

Don't tell me "Microsoft and Red Hat developers don't wear ties"; that's irrelevant. The salespeople Microsoft, Red Hat, Novell, and others send to government and business leaders normally wear the most conservative clothing (for men, full suits with ties), because they are interested in changing laws, policies, and markets. Suits and ties aren't free; salespeople wear such clothing because they work, and since this is one of the few "tricks of the trade" that FLOSS leaders can use, it's foolish to not use them where appropriate. Yes, FLOSS projects have made inroads, but in some cases it's in spite of their leaders, not because of them. Many FLOSS project leaders incorrectly think that they only interact with the programming community, and thus can ignore all other cultures. But when project leaders try to advocate political or business changes to people from other cultures, the leaders are selling their ideas, not writing code -- and need to adjust accordingly. If they don't, then their voices will often be ignored at best.

Why is this article on Groklaw? Because Groklaw represents an extraordinary confluence of people from different cultures, such as software developers and people in the legal field. One challenge when cultures interact is that sometimes different cultures are not sensitive to the needs or mores of others. Most people in the legal field know better than to show up in extremely informal attire in a court room... and they can also quickly dress down when the situation warrants. But software developers all too often fail to consider others' cultures, and then they wonder why they fail to achieve their objectives. Developers -- you are being told why you sometimes fail to convince others; perhaps you should listen. Should software patents be rejected in Europe and elsewhere? Should the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) be repealed? Is it important to encourage the use of open standards? Is it important for people to use (or at least consider to use) FLOSS programs? Or... is never wearing a tie the most important issue to you? If you're a software developer, you should identify what goals are most important to you. Then, if you can help achieve your goals by adjusting your appearance, do it.

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