Smart Casual

Last week’s heatwave prompted a lot of debate about workwear and whether a suit and tie (male), suit or dress (female), was appropriate for estate agents to wear regardless of the temperature.

My personal preference has changed a lot over the years. When I started in agency there was nothing to discuss, every day I wore a dark suit and tie, white shirt, black shoes and belt: it was de rigueur, no exceptions. Over lunch last week with Stephen Hayter, (PPL’s founder director), we both recalled how, on very hot days, we would receive a call from head office stating that “if we wished to, jackets could be removed” – heaven forbid we did so without permission.

Now, as I type this, I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt but I’m working from my home office with no appointments today – there’s no way I’d ever show up like this at a client’s place of work. A lot of the debate on this subject is fuelled by personal opinion/preference but there is actually some science/proof/facts that should be considered because actually what you wear does matter.

In his bestselling book, ‘Influence, Science and Practice’ Professor Robert Cialdini highlights several pieces of research of how clothing can trigger a mechanical compliance using the “authority principle”. In one experiment, a researcher dressed in jeans and t-shirt, asked passersby on a street to cross the road and give a complete stranger some money for the parking meter. Incredibly, 42% complied but when the researcher changed into a suit and tie and repeated the request the response rate increased to 92%!

In another experiment, a 31-year old man crossed the street without waiting for the green light and when wearing a suit rather than casual clothing 3.5 times more people crossed with him. Doctors wearing a white coat command far more authority than without it. The military, police and other emergency services likewise know the power of their uniforms. How you appear is proven to influence how others behave. So rests the testimony for the suit and tie.

However, there’s another powerful tool of influence that’s equally effective, the “liking principle” – we prefer to deal with people we like and who are like us. Cialdini cites an experiment where on a college campus, someone dressed as a student asked to borrow money to make a call from a payphone. In 2/3s of cases the request was granted. But when the same researchers were dressed differently to the students, their success rate dropped below 50%.

My personal view is that how you appear has a huge influence on the first impression which is proven in countless amounts of research to be so important. Turn up in a suit and tie and you’ll more likely be seen as “professional” and “authoritative”. Wearing a pair of chinos and a polo shirt you’ll be immediately more likeable to many people. The choice therefore, should be determined by your brand. This doesn’t just apply to clothing. How you answer the phone, sign off emails, greet someone – each and every moment and method of interaction adds up to the overall brand you display.

However, whichever route you choose please make sure you do it well. Someone in a cheap suit with a Homer Simpson tie and matching socks isn’t going to evoke the feeling of being in the presence of an “expert”. Likewise, being too casual could cause people to think you’re indifferent and couldn’t care.

I apply a simple rule – dress for my audience and if in doubt go higher. However, these days it tends to be mixed, i.e. some in a suit and tie, others suit/no tie and another group in more casual attire. As a consequence I tend to wear a suit without a tie as this ticks the boxes of all but the most traditionally minded – and that’s how I’d probably show up on a market appraisal today.

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