Sunday, 24 July 2011

Appearance is everything

A huge amount of research has been done into the way people process information. This has looked at the way we learn, how we apply existing knowledge to experiences, even how you can have a guy in a bear suit run straight through the middle of a video without people noticing him.

One thing that has come out of all this research that I find interesting, is information about how we assess and deal with the people around us. A significant proportion of our response to people is based on appearance, with people constantly making assumptions based on someone's look or actions.

I've had a great deal of experience of this phenomenon personally. As someone who stands over 6 foot, and weighs around 100kg, I'm fairly solidly built. During my uni days, you could add any combination of dark hair, lack of shaving and ratty clothing to that list. As a result, I could guarantee that the empty seat next to me on the train would be the last one filled. It became a running joke for me with my parents, particularly once I started working in an office job, and could compare this response, to the one when I swapped the jeans for a suit.

Another example came up recently when I was talking to some relatives about one of my cousins. During his teens, he went through a goth phase. This was more than ten years ago, and he's moved on to other things now, but they recently found out that the daughter of a family living down the road would cross the street if he was coming towards her. We're talking here about someone who had known him before this phase, but still responded in this way to the changes appearance.

This sort of response is very interesting to me (Psych major at uni), and amusing to play with (juvenile mentality), but also has a serious side. How does this apply to working life, and more importantly how do we alter our appearance to portray ourselves in particular ways to the people we deal with. This can relate to any setting, from our social interactions with friends, to the way in which you present yourself in a work setting towards your colleagues, managers and clients.

As a general rule of thumb, people will seek to adopt a specific style, usually aiming to match the general look of the group with which they are interacting, seeking social acceptance through homogeneity. Classic examples of this are the 'what are you wearing tonight' phone calls/conversations that start happening at about 5pm every Friday or Saturday night and the 'blue shirt brigades' wandering around the financial districts of any major city...

While this can again be amusng to observe, it has serious applications in market research. In the past, I have in one week, gone from a presentation to a client wanting advice on future business directions (suit and tie), through a casual debrief with an advertising agency wanting feedback on their new tv campaign (shirt and slacks, no tie), all the way down to interviews with homeless kids about how they ended up on the streets (t-shirt and jeans).

While this is taking the most extreme examples, it perfectly demonstrates the diversity of situations that might be faced. I can guarantee that if I turned up to talk to the street kids in a suit and tie, there is no chance they would have been as willing to share their stories, and if I turned up to the client presentation in jeans, that they would place severe question marks on any recommendations I might have made!

In summary, while content can overcome appearance, the two operating in unison can definitely serve to strengthen a message or connection. Keep this in mind, and always think carefully about who you're dealing with and how you want to be seen!

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