Several years ago, I started reading Put This On and started to think with slightly more purpose about how I dressed at work because I wanted to be taken more seriously at work. I felt that people treated me with professional sincerity when I didn’t dress like I walked out of a dorm room. How I looked, acted and communicated was a big part of establishing trust with those I met.
I had an experience recently that reminded me about why dressing professionally can be important.
A week ago, I drove from Chicago to Monterey Bay in California, with my car packed full of boxes, bags and a bird cage with my pet cockatiel — Rico — who I’ve had since middle school. I’ve always lived with my bird, who spent most of my college and professional years with me. I didn’t think twice about bringing her across the country with me, driving along I-80 toward a new career and home.
Traveling with a pet bird isn’t easy, but it can be done — at least what I’d read online. Put them in a smaller cage, cover the cage with a blanket to keep them from freaking out, make sure they have food and water.
But what I should’ve known, but didn’t realize was that a short trip of a few hours is vastly different than a multi-day trip of 14 hours driving per day. On the latter half of the second day, my bird wasn’t talking and had her eyes closed. I wrongly assumed she was merely tired.
I later found out that she was showing the physical signs of stress and slowly dying. She wasn’t eating. She wasn’t drinking water from the bottle at I placed up to her beak. She didn’t even respond to me when I rubbed the back of her neck.
I arrived in Monterey late Thursday and found her dead on the bottom of her cage. In the darkness of the drive, I hadn’t noticed she had passed. I felt guilty and angry with myself. I cried.
The next day I sought out a pet cremation services company. I arrived at their office, located in an industrial park, and walked in carrying a small shoebox that my Airbnb host the night before had provided me to transport her body. The office was decorated much like a funeral parlor would be. Inspirational posters about death and heaven. Urns on shelves. A round table with a box of tissues on it.
And then there was the man who greeted me. He was very empathetic and seemed like a nice guy who had the unfortunate job of meeting people like myself who arrive with lifeless pets they’ve known longer than any real human friend.
As he filled out an intake form and talked about the various options, my eyes kept drawing back to one thing about him: he was wearing a Hooters T-shirt.
I kept thinking, “This is the person I’m trusting with the cremation of my pet?”
I’d like to think I’m not a very judgmental person, but there are times in your life you want to feel like you trust someone’s professionalism in their job. And in some cases they really only get once chance with you for you to feel at ease, knowing the job will get done correctly.
How a person dresses isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way you judge their professionalism, but it’s a part of it. It’s the first impression and in some cases can even be a distraction when you see the words “Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” while you’re trying to think of which box you want your pet’s ashes placed into for eternity.
Dressing appropriately is a part of demonstrating professionalism. It doesn’t mean wearing a jacket and tie, but it does mean showing a sense of taste to remove barriers of doubt about whether you can be trusted.
People often ask me why I spend time ironing my shirts and wearing neckties. This adequately demonstrates one reason.
Here’s the other, more important (and accidental) reason: I can be a jerk sometimes. Not in the cruel demeaning way, but in the “here’s the truth, no sugar” kind of way. People often complain that I’m hard on them; trust me when I say I’m about 20x harder on myself.
When it comes down to it, the bowtie or the coiffed hair (my barber’s idea) or the blue suede shoes tend to be disarming and often soften the blow. For some reason, when I appear like I’ve put some thought into my appearance, I don’t appear as though I’m really trying to be a jerk (I’m not, I swear).