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My Informal Social Experiment

December 9, 2014

On November 3, I went to work in my favorite pair of cargo pants. They are darkish-green, with the obligatory cargo pockets on the sides and a checked pattern woven into the fabric.

I wore those same pants to work every day until December 3. (Yes, they were washed regularly.)

These sorts of little things amuse me. I grinned uncontrollably every day as I put those pants on. I walked through Timbercrest every day wondering who would be the first person to say to me, “Didn’t you wear those pants yesterday?”

Even Karen didn’t notice… she has assured me since that she will be paying better attention from now on.

“Why do this?” you may wonder.

I had three main results I was looking for:

1) Would anyone notice?

2) If they did notice, would anyone say anything to me?

3) On an even playing field with an optimistic outlook, working hard and well, and otherwise having a decent demeanor, does out outward appearance really matter all that much?

I often find myself doing this very thing: I get a little catty when someone is a little disheveled. I look askance at the woman still wearing clothes from the 80’s. I sometimes worry what people will think when I dress like “Christopher Robin” (which happens to be a look I enjoy).

Keep in mind, I work in a retirement community that is very, very nice. The people who live there wear nice clothes (not too formal, but nice). The staff only wear jeans on paydays, every other Thursday. Otherwise, there are uniformed departments and the other departments have a dress code. To a significant degree, appearance matters.

Also keep in mind that I spend very much of my time barefoot. Almost always when I’m not at work and usually in my office, summer and winter, rain and snow. I am used to people making remarks to me all the time about being barefoot… “Aren’t you cold?” or “How can you do that?” or “Shouldn’t you have shoes on in here?”

So, first, did anyone notice? When I announced on Facebook on December 3 that I had been conducting a “secret but very public social experiment at work;” several friends speculated as to what I had done. Only one got it spot on: Carrie Vineyard. When I talked to her about it, she said, “I was wondering the other day if Brian had any other pants.” Otherwise, no one else noticed.

This is directly connected to my second question: “If someone noticed, would they say anything to me?” The answer, apparently, is “No.” There are 310 people who live where I work and 200 employees. Almost every day, I go to several places related to my work: the grocery, the library, Manchester University, etc. No one said a thing.

There were some “retro” notices when I told some people… “Oh, yeah, I thought about that,” and such like. Sorry. That doesn’t count.

Some might say, “Well, you’re in management, how could we say something?” If you knew the employees in my department, you’d know they don’t hold back. Also, anyone who has worked with nurses or older adults knows that the connection between an opinion and the mouth is a short one… if they notice, they say it.

So my final question, “On an even playing field with an optimistic outlook, working hard and well, and otherwise having a decent demeanor, does out outward appearance really matter all that much?”

My conclusion, drawn from this non-scientific experiment, is what I suspected: No. Outward appearance doesn’t matter as much as anyone thinks. There are plenty of people who go to work in $500 suits who are negative and grumpy. There are plenty of people in the latest fashion trend who are ineffectual or marginal in their performance. I know people who look great but they are really a drag to be around.

This gets to the root of a lot of issues in life. People are too often judged by how they look rather than by who they are. This is unfortunate. It is also too familiar to almost anyone:

– The older person who has lost their false teeth and won’t see anyone until she does

– The teenager who dreads the day because of acne and withdraws from his friends until it clears up

– The woman whose hair is responding poorly to the humidity and takes it out on the waitress at lunch

– The man who pulls in his gut when a young woman approaches think it will make a better impression

… and on, and on, and on.

When I go barefoot into a store most people don’t say a word. However, I can tell right off when I see a clerk or another customer who is begging to say something. It doesn’t seem to matter that I am generally in good humor, or that I’m in a nice shirt and pants, or that I’m there to spend money, or that I may even know half the people in the store. I’ve been judged for how I look – barefoot – rather than who I am or what I am there for.

It’s not enough to say “Everyone does it” or “There has to be ‘professionalism'” or other such: When we judge by outward appearance we fail to see the bigger picture.

For example, we may be put off by the clerk with a conspicuous piercing – and I’ve witnessed people make remarks to people like this – but we fail to see that this person may be working two or more low-wage jobs to pay child support or to afford tuition or medical bills.

Or maybe we judge the overweight woman at Walmart for her tight clothes or awkwardly exposed skin without seeing that she’s being abused at home or has a child in jail or is simply very lonely and can only seem to find comfort in food.

Worse yet, maybe we determine that those fine looking people in smart suits or fashionable dresses are nothing to worry about only to learn that these are the people who working to tear down historic buildings or suing the schools for having a Christmas party or what-have-you. It is truly a lie that “clothes make the man.”

If someone has an optimistic outlook, does it matter if they’re wearing shoes or not?

If someone is working hard and well, does it matter if their clothes are stylish?

If someone has a decent demeanor, wouldn’t we rather deal with them than with someone with good looks and critical?

My conclusions are this (and I am not exempting myself from this):

* Try to see a fellow human being as they are, not as they appear.

* If you (or I) have an issue with what someone is wearing, try to see beyond that – what is their appearance communicating?

* Examine yourself (or myself): why is their appearance bothering you (or me)? Is it more to do with my own prejudice than with who that other person is?

Thanks for sharing this little social experiment with me. It was fun 🙂



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One Comment
  1. anonymous permalink

    Like this hypothetical scenario:
    It’s the 1960s, and a long haired bearded hippie who was not wearing a shirt or shoes was in an anti-war protest. When he tries to go into a nearby business he is refused entry. Right after him comes a short haired, clean cut man wearing a very expensive suit. He is known in the area as being a member of an organized crime family, and he just killed someone yesterday. He is welcomed and given the best treatment.

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