I’m happy to announce that our latest research study, “What to Wear Where: Mishaps in the Presentation of Identity Across Cultures,” is now available. In it, we explore an important mode of non-verbal communication: our physical appearance and the messages we send about our identity, both knowingly and unknowingly, when we get up in the morning, fix our hair, slip on our shoes, pick out our jacket and walk out the door.
People transmit signals about who they are in countless ways – including fashion and physical appearance. Bright colors vs. black, neatly trimmed hair vs. scruffy-chic, modest vs. revealing clothing – all of these choices send a message about the kind of person we are, at least within our own culture. But what happens when we move to a new land?
Drawing on the participation of 152 men and women who spanned a range of nationalities and ages, all of whom had lived in a country other than their own, this study first confirmed the fundamental hypothesis that people make assumptions about others based on their physical appearance. When asked about their first impressions of six photographed models, there was a striking consistency among the participants in their assumptions about the models’ personality, interests and skills.
When crossing cultures, however, physical appearance signals can get misinterpreted. The message received may differ from the message that was intended. Losing this non-verbal mode of communicating identity can be unsettling, especially when it takes one by surprise. “What to Wear Where” seeks to quantify this issue and highlight its importance both for those living an expatriate life and those seeking to support them.
When asked what they were trying to convey through their appearance, the participants from 32 countries around the world most often reported the desire to project an air of elegance, competence, and beauty, but recounted many stories about how their appearance had been mis-interpreted when in a new country. The suit that felt chic to the wearer was met with disdain by co-workers in a new country who saw it as inappropriate for the workplace. The casual shorts and T-shirt, comfort clothing to some, were met with jeers by neighbors in a different culture.
Cultural values clearly play an important role here. Respondents judged the appropriateness of others’ outfits more leniently if they were from cultures that value individual freedom and emphasize egalitarian relationships with peers and superiors. For participants from collectivist, communitarian cultures, clothing was an inherent aspect of identity, to be protected and defended, whereas, for those from individualistic cultures, clothing was less connected to their core identity.
Read our Executive Summary
of this report now, or download the full 25-page research report
, including a description of research methods, a detailed discussion of findings, and summary of participant responses.
Contributed by Anne P. Copeland, PhD, founder and Executive Director of The Interchange Institute, a non-profit organization focused on the understanding and support of people and organizations in intercultural transition. For many years, Anne was the Program Director for FIGT. She blogs at The Interchange Institute