Truth Is Just Perception

Appearance, Performance And Difference

About the importance of dress code for professional interactions and the evolution of human relationships.

Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder and CEO of Facebook, is currently meeting with investment banks in anticipation of his company’s IPO.

It turns out that one of the analysts he has met on this occasion, Michael Pachter (Wedbush), didn’t appreciate that Zuckerberg attended their meeting with the hooded sweatshirt that he wears daily. Pachter shared his displeasure in an interview with Bloomberg: “He’s actually showing investors he doesn’t care that much; he’s going to be him. I think that’s a mark of immaturity. I think that he has to realize he’s bringing investors in as a new constituency right now, and I think he’s got to show them the respect that they deserve because he’s asking them for their money.”

I don’t know whether or not Michael Pachter is a first-class financial analyst but he has a talent for spouting nonsense after nonsense:

  • is it so wrong to be yourself? Is this a sign of immaturity or maturity to not be willing to base your relationships with others on a feigned appearance? In my view, a lack of respect for others is for example an appearance that would not be hygienic or would offend their beliefs (e.g. tee-shirts with anti-religious messages);
  • Zuckerberg has succeeded so far because he has broken the codes and has innovated. It is unfortunate that Pachter does not understand that this attitude – the same that has allowed Zuckerberg to create value for the Society and a great number of (direct and indirect) jobs – can also explain how he chooses to dress. As did Stalin about the Pope, one could ask: “Pachter, how many jobs has he created?”;
  • above all, it is shocking that a financial analyst considers a potential investment based on the appearance rather than the performance of the company’s CEO. Such an attitude is also at odds with the American culture. Incidentally, Pachter demonstrates his idiocy – or hypocrisy – by being very optimistic about the future of Facebook with a target share price of 44 dollars.

(CC) Joe Shlabotnik

Ultimately, this stupid statement has one merit: It illustrates the importance that is still attached to dress code for the management of perceptions in professional relations. This importance is based on two well-known facts: We only have one opportunity to create a good first impression and emotions are the primary driver of perceptions. The way one dresses is therefore important in the perception we have of others, especially when meeting someone for the first time.

In this respect, conventional wisdom entices you to dress the same way that your interlocutor. If you overdress, you convey an image of superiority to your interlocutor. If you don’t dress sufficiently well, you may indicate a lack of respect for your interlocutor. This latter emotional reaction is perfectly illustrated by Michael Pachter’s statement.

This is how the world has worked for centuries. Indeed, mimicry facilitates communication and empathy. This has been demonstrated by neuroscience, in particular through what experts call “mirror neurons” (see notably the book “Social Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman).

But two trends are undermining the old dress-code practice:

  1. the role of new technologies in the global economy: They are the world’s most innovative industry and represent a growing share of the global economic development – directly by the wealth they create and indirectly through the efficiencies they allow all other industries to achieve. And new technologies are most often the creation of inventors who operate according to the counterculture of the 1960-1970s. They have adopted and popularized a dress code based on the first value of this counterculture: The freedom to be one’s self (what Michael Pachter seems to totally ignore). This dress code is gradually spreading in sync with the global expansion of the IT industry;
  2. more important is the second trend which relates to the internationalization – to an unprecedented level – of relations between countries, businesses and individuals. This internationalization is also the consequence of the development of new technologies which, in the words of Tom Friedman, “flatten” the world. The world now seems to be working as an integrated, giant value chain, to be sharing the news in a few nanoseconds from one point to another of the Earth, and to be entertaining with the same cultural phenomena without any notion of borders, language or religion. Therefore, our exposure to other communities is unprecedented in history.

Ultimately, the dress code is the legacy of a world that exacerbated differences – primarily social and cultural – and the lack of a dress code will be one day, hopefully, a sign of a more united world. Instead of codifying the differences between people, we will accept them. One will always be able to wear a suit but it will be their own choice rather than the application of a code.

There already has been some evolution in this direction with the Friday Wear that some companies are promoting. You may have noticed, like me, that, in companies where executives dress accordingly, this practice changes the relationships between individuals that are no longer distinguished by the quality or style of their clothing. In this regard, I remember the mercurial CEO of a large corporation with whom I used to work. He didn’t apply the Friday Wear on Fridays but dressed casually when we had to come to the office during weekends in order to manage communication crises or prepare for financial announcements. At first, this surprised the employees who were present but then created a more relaxed relationship with them. The work was made easier.

However, there is one problem with Friday Wear: It’s still a dress code! Ultimately, the best solution will be to get rid of all dress codes, except in professions (defense, homeland security, health…) that require to wear uniforms for operational reasons. These people must continue too to have the freedom to be themselves.

At the end of the day, my dress code philosophy is simple: I do not care about appearance, I enjoy differences, and I try to evaluate my interlocutors on their performance alone.

I judge them by the quality of their ideas, not the quality of their clothes.

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