Body language interpretation

NLP techniques

The way we dress

The way we dress is often perceived as a method of body language interpretation.  But is it a reliable indicator of who and what we are?


Eat to please thyself but dress to please others.

Benjamin Franklin


If you are a guest at a smart hotel where a seminar is taking place, it is usually not so difficult to pick out the seminar attendees as they move to and fro. 

Identifying each other

In the same way, you can usually identify trade unionists outside the hall where their annual conference is taking place, or business executives outside an annual business confederation meeting.

At each of these events the dress will be a little different, but within them the dress will usually be sufficiently similar to identify the participants.  

We like to be the same, and we like to dress in a similar way to those who are like-minded.

There are times when events happen in our lives that cause us to change, at least for a while.  Most of us like to be reasonably well turned out. 

Body language interpretation and the way we are

But if things aren’t going so well or we are unwell or depressed, sometimes our standards slip.

Some years ago Richard, a very dear friend of mine who was a medical doctor, went through a family break up when his wife left him for another man. 

I met him in the High Street one day, his suit was crumpled, his shirt was un-ironed, he was unshaven and his gait was rambling.  

This was not the smart, well-turned out Richard I was used to seeing.  This is a good example of body language interpretation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a shambles and looked as if he had been dragged through a hedge backwards.  “My divorce came through this morning”, he exclaimed, before I could utter a word.

Now, I am pleased to say that before too long, with the help of friends, Richard put it behind him and went on to meet another lovely lady who he later married.

Body language interpretation and changing priorities

It serves to show, however, how our priorities change when we are physically or mentally affected.

It is not only our clothing that gives us away.  People suffering from low mood, depression or mental illness, will often be seen walking along with rounded shoulders, looking at the ground.

So, generally speaking, when the demeanour of someone you know changes for the worse in this way, you may reasonably take it to mean that something is wrong.

When we are fit and well, however, we generally dress according to how we believe ourselves to be:  how we wish to fit in – as most of us do – or how we don’t;  whether we wish to be casual or business like. 

Body language interpretation and conforming to convention

Like it or not, if we do not conform to the conventions of society, we are not accepted in some quarters at least by some or most people in those particular sections.

For example, when I appeared in court as an advocate I was expected to dress in a dark sober suit, white shirt, smart (but not flashy) tie, and black shoes.  I was pleased to do that.

Not only did I feel comfortable conforming to court tradition, I also knew that if my opponent was not similarly dressed, he was at a disadvantage. 

Somehow, people who do not conform lack credibility in a particular environment.

If I had attended an open air pop concert dressed in that way, I would have attracted some strange looks and no doubt people would have been saying, “Who is this weird guy?”

When I went to Royal Ascot in England recently to watch horse racing, admission to certain parts of the course was not permitted unless gentlemen were dressed in top hat and tails. 

That was normal dress in the presence of royalty and nothing else was acceptable.

Hardly suitable though for a beach barbecue when virtually no clothes would be the norm!  You see, it is not so much the clothing perhaps as the environment.

Body language interpretation and marking ourselves out

Often dress marks out who we are and who we believe others to be, but we have to be cautious because it is not always a reliable indicator.

I well remember in 2005 when I was working in London there was, one day, a spate of suicide terrorist bombings. 

At least two occurred on underground trains and another when the roof of a bus was blown off.  Many people were killed.

It was later established that one of the terrorists had been carrying a backpack bearing the name of a well-known chain of London gyms. 

I happened to be a member of the same gym and I always carried a similar backpack to work after my morning session at the gym.  

But I soon became very aware of the discomfort some people felt when they saw me on an underground train carrying that bag.

It is easy to draw irrational conclusions about who may or may not be a danger to us depending on clothing or what someone else is wearing.

Criminals know this very well.  Some of the very best conmen dress in $1,500 suits and frequent the most fashionable bars and hotels.  

They wish to appear credible because they seek fat prey.

Body language interpretation, conventions and mismatching

Dress may – and I stress may – indicate a mismatch between personalities.  

I recall attending a meeting a few years ago with an MD of a company which was seeking an interim senior manager with a legal background for a few months.

The moment he walked through the door wearing brown shoes, I just had that feeling we were not from the same planet. 

You might laugh.  You might say that I jumped hastily to the wrong conclusion, but the meeting was short and no deal was completed that day.

The shoes were just the first indicator.  From there it went from bad to worse.  

The language he spoke was so different from mine that it might just as well have been Martian, although we were both English.

So whatever situation you are dressing for, consider carefully how you wish to be perceived by others.  It is not a question of fairness and justice. 

Some sections of society require certain standards and if we fail to comply with them, others jump to conclusions.  They may be wrong, but they do so nonetheless.

If you don’t bother to dress appropriately for an interview because you don’t agree with the convention, don’t be surprised if you fail at the first hurdle.

If you don’t wear an evening suit when the dress code for dinner is formal, don’t be surprised if you are refused admission to the dining room. 

Be selfish, but in this respect.  Think of what you wish to achieve rather than that which you wish to rebel against.



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