The Power of Appearance

Joan F. Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California

You are only what you are when no one is looking (Robert C. Edwards, "TPCN - Great Quotations").
Everything else is appearance. And appearance is often deceptive. Nevertheless, while knowing all of that, we seem helpless in committing ourselves to the practice of basing our opinions on appearances.

It is as Mark Twain stated, "Moralizing, I observed, then, that "all that glitters is not gold." Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only lowborn metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that." (Roughing It)

Twain's statement represents the problem described in the first paragraph: we judge people on a first appearance, decide whether we like or dislike them within our 15 seconds branding process, and treat them accordingly from that first impression on... We keep doing it no matter how ingrained the reasoning that "Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth," (Aesop, "TPCN - Great Quotations") or, like the famous Vincent Van Gogh averred, "One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way" ("Quotations about Appearance").

Allowing ourselves to be led by appearances does not only pertain to personal situations, but to professional environments as well.

Why else would we follow a certain dress code if we want to stand a reasonable chance at an application interview? And why else do we closely examine our hairdo, our nails, our clothes, shoes, scent and everything else that could possibly distort the splendid first impression we want to make? The world turns on first impressions no matter how often in our lifetime we learn the opposite and no matter how frequent guru's of all kind will spell out this flaw for us by stressing, "You and I do not see things as they are. We see things as we are." (Herb Cohen, "TPCN – Great Quotations").

On the other hand, there are people who drive their believe in the power of being different to extreme levels. Nothing wrong with that… as long as you don't depend on an ordinary job at an ordinary corporation. If you want to be part of the corporate world, you better start studying the middle-of-the-road look. And you better get yourself to feeling comfortable in the conventional gray suit-n-tie and neat haircut mode. If not, you'll be surpassed time after time in application procedures, and you don't even have to wonder why... In corporate environments, namely, they don't like you to be different. They prefer similarity- to an ultimately tedious level. Just read some of the articles on diversity and its ill-fated, slow development, in spite of its proven advantages for every work environment and the organization's clients or customers, and you'll know what I mean.

Like almost anything else, a golden midway in the perception and application of the appearance issue might be the best way to go. In other words: don't look completely out-of-line, but definitely don't allow yourself to fall into mediocrity either. And, depending on the career you pursue, you will have to lean a little bit more to one side or the other. Want to be an artist? Go ahead and look different! Want to be an accounting manager at Disney, Warner Bros or NBC? Definitely start adapting to the gray suit! The inimitable Abe once stated, "The Lord prefers common looking people. That is why he made so many of them" (Abraham Lincoln, "TPCN - Great Quotations"). If you visit one of the large corporations, you'll instantaneously realize what he meant.

Yet, appearance is not only determined by what you wear and how you carry your hair. It's the totality of how you carry yourself! Ever thought about the statement: "when entering a room, do so as if you own it"? There are people who display a pretty miserable taste in dressing, yet manage to turn heads just by the way they walk. And since this is an absolute fact, we can derive that appearance is, at least partially, determined by the way you feel about yourself and the world. It shines through your eyes, it vibrates through your tread, and it radiates through the aura you seem to carry with you when you are having a good day. Some will disagree and say, that's not appearance, that's charisma, or sex-appeal. I say, it's charisma and sex-appeal shining through appearance. And if what I state is true, the following declared common error may not be an error after all: "The most common error made in matters of appearance is the belief that one should disdain the superficial and let the true beauty of one's soul shine through. If there are places on your body where this is a possibility, you are not attractive -- you are leaking" (Fran Lebowitz, "TPCN - Great Quotations").

Considering the inner world as a determinant of how the outer world is perceived by the shallow crowd, we can henceforth derive that, after all, you can't make a special person mediocre by forcing him/her into average-looking corporate outfits. The style and character will remain under the surface, and ultimately seep through the dull exterior, logically easier detected by an alert observer than a shallow-minded one. This, then, leads to the yet another conclusion: sometimes things seem what they're not. Like the corporate example we just mentioned. Or like blessings in disguise. Or maybe the opposite: like wolves in sheep coats. Just consider those times when an initially dreadful looking task turned out to offer the possibility of climbing higher on the corporate ladder. Or when a seeming advantage turned out to be a great loss… That was appearance misleading you.

Nevertheless, appearance is important. Leaders in all kinds of organizations are aware of that and use it at the strategic level. One of the 10 checkpoints for leaders, as presented by Woolf (2001) is, "Security in their sense of "self" and an appearance of being at peace. Our own special talents and gifts are part of what make us unique individuals. Good leaders know their strengths and create opportunities to showcase that talent. []" (p. 28). Arthur Ashe generalized the importance of appearance by affirming, "Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. Even if you are behind, a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge that results in victory" ("TPCN - Great Quotations"). Ashe is right, for it's just a handful of us that own the maturity to distinguish that "People that seem so glorious are all show underneath they are like everyone else." (Euripides, "TPCN - Great Quotations")

Being an entire "representation code outcast" myself, I would like to stress here that, as long as you have not made the decision about what really matters to you - what makes you happy, and what you want with your life - you should go by the general appearance code. P. J. O'Rourke may have meant just that when stressing, "The weirder you're going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse, too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person" ("Quotations about Appearance").

Personally, I think there are just two mandatory issues in appearance:

    1) Keep yourself clean. For "Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness." (John Wesley, "TPCN - Great Quotations")
    2) Do what your job requires from you on the outside, but always maintain the traits, abilities or skills that make you stand out. Like Wess Roberts stated it, "They expect a professional presentation, so they expect to see a "professional." Dress appropriately for the occasion, but don't be one of the crowd." ("TPCN - Great Quotations")

It is only when you have set your priorities, when you don't care whether you earn one dime today and a million dimes tomorrow when you realize that peace of mind matters most to you when you prefer being left alone to finish a task to your best knowledge and experience instead of being micro-managed by a knit-picking boss, and most of all, when you can really make that happen, that you may decide to ignore the rules of mediocrity and base your appearance on how you feel best. For only then can you exclaim with passion, "All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost" (J.R.R. Tolkein, ("Quotations about Appearance"). Nowhere before that.


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  • Woolf, B. (2001). In quest of leaders: Searching beyond the board room. Rural Telecommunications, 20(5), 26-28.