When Barney Stinson – one of the corkiest characters on the show “How I Met Your Mother” – says “suit up”, I smile and nod. The character of Barney would be disastrous as an expat. It’s really just the lesson we can draw from him that has serious implications for a resilient expat: one aught to dress for one’s intentions.
Dress for decision-making when decision-making is the goal.
Dress for relaxing when relaxing is the main intent.
Whatever happens, if you want to be taken seriously – dress for it.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Never judge a book by its cover. The clothes do not make the man.
But let’s get real. In an intercultural environment where your effectiveness is measured just as much by what you do as by how you do it, dress does matter. Let’s be clear about this, it’s not the suit that will make the difference, but the appropriateness of the delivery mechanism. And since the delivery mechanism in this case is a person, than how that person is packaged matters.
A group of conservative, hard-working farmers in a remote part of a developing country are unlikely to listen to – let alone appreciate – outside ideas about new techniques to improve agricultural yields if the person delivering the information comes dressed in oversized shorts, a rock band t-shirt and sandals. Just like doing a powerpoint presentation would be an inappropriate form of delivery to an audience of visually impaired beneficiaries, or referring to extensive handouts to illiterate audiences, so would dressing like one is going to the beach. Plain and simple.
There are a few different avenues on could select. We could entirely ignore local conventions and do as we please because it’s the content that matters (hint: it’s not!). We could go the entire opposite and assimilate to the point of only wearing the local garb (hint: it could backfire). Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot where the resilient expat can retain their own sense of self by adapting to the new environments in such a way that creates an effective balance. And that balance is where “suiting up” might actually mean simply observing a sufficient amount of the local customs and presenting yourself in a manner compatible with your intentions.
Think this just goes without saying? If only it was, but it isn’t. And that’s way some expats (and visitors from other far away lands) sometimes lose credibility and fail to forge the necessary trust that leads to effective intercultural interactions. Here are two examples.
I was once speaking with a colleague about his recent trip to Asia with a female colleague of ours. This woman was incredibly smart, probably had 20 years experience in intercultural environments, oozed confidence and, apparently had failed the “suit up” test. In meetings with senior government officials, the woman would bend over on the table to emphasize a point or to reach over. Not too far on the inappropriate scale, except for the fact that it revealed everything about what was under her blouse! (Or rather lack thereof which was my colleague’s great source of embarrassment).
In contrast, I spoke to a resilient expat who said that she chose to explain to her co-workers that the local mode of dress wasn’t comfortable for her, and that while she meant no disrespect by baring her shoulders in public, she hoped they would understand. And they did – but only insofar as the deviance from locally accepted attire was restricted to the office. If a local official was expected or a meeting with outside attendees was scheduled, she had to cover up. It was a deal well brokered that, though her dress had nothing to do with her brains, reflected a respect of local appropriateness and create a more inclusive situation.
When we forget to present ourselves in a way that ensures people can respond in a positive fashion (usually because we want to exude expertise, leadership, understanding), we walk into situations “naked”. So yes, not everyone is into the whole suit and tie thing. That may not be necessary. The idea is to find a suitable alternative (pun intended) that will make it possible to demonstrate your ability to adapt and therefore be meaningfully included within the group you are with.
Think of the last time you walked into a room. Did you dress for decision-making or to hang out at the local pub?
If a judgment was to be made (right or wrong), did it scream resilient expat or something else?
Get it? Good. Now suit up! Today is going to be… wait for it… legendary! 😉