The Modern Survival Guide #15
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And right now I’m checking my hair in the mirror, because in this article I want to talk about the importance of a person’s image.
Put simply, your image matters. This will affect your employment, your personal life, and your social life. It is unavoidable, universally true, and something you need to plan for and deal with. “Don’t just a book by its cover” is wonderful advice that we all ignore daily, and while it is important to acknowledge that people are more than their outer appearance, it’s not something to bet on if you want to make it through a job interview.
“Image” in this context consists of your personal appearance and your reputation. These are different things. Your personal appearance is a matter of clothing and grooming. Your personal reputation is also about clothing and grooming, but more about attitude and trust. Let’s discuss these concepts separately.
People judge you based on how you look. Now, there’s an entire other argument about whether or not that’s a good thing, or fair, or sexist, or racist, or whatever. We’re not going there. We’re dealing with the world as it is. People judge you hard based on how you look.
This is largely because, right or wrong, people generally assume that how you look is a good indication of your personality and relative place in the social hierarchy. If you look like you rolled out of bed and threw on the first thing that came to hand, the people you encounter are much more likely to think you’re a lazy slob. If you dress like a gangster, people will think you’re a gangster. If you dress in suits every day, people are more likely to think you’re a successful or respectable professional. And so on.
This is a harsh reality of the world, but it kind of makes sense — the average passerby cannot see what a lovely, beautiful butterfly you are on the inside, and mostly they wouldn’t care even if they could. But they can judge how much you’re likely to tip, how likely you are to rob them, whether you’ll pay for your half of the food, what kind of job you can do, etc. They may get these judgments wrong, but these things have consequences either way. Managing these situations is often more on you than on them because, for the most part, a person’s reaction to your appearance is predictable. Never assume that another person will go out of their way to behave according to your worldview, and always remember that first impressions are a big deal.
So, some basic tips:
- Be clean. In America this means showering at least once every couple of days, wearing deodorant, keeping your hair neat, cleaning your fingernails, and wearing clean clothing. Shaving is also in there somewhere. You can get away with a lot of fashion mistakes if you’re clean.
- Keep your clothing in good repair. This can mean different things for different kinds of clothing. If something is supposed to be fashionably ripped, keep it fashionably ripped. If it’s supposed to be neatly stitched, keep it neatly stitched. Shine your shoes as needed. Repair your heels when they get run down. If you aren’t sure how to keep your clothes in good condition, or simply can’t, there are dry cleaners, tailors, and shoe shops all over the place who will be happy to help you with that.
- Wear appropriate clothing. If you’re going to a funeral, do not show up in neon go-go boots. If you’re going to a club, do not show up in a somber black suit (unless you’re going for a Look). Stay away from miniskirts in the office. Do not wear wife beaters to church if you can avoid it. If you don’t know what clothing is appropriate for a venue, look it up. Google will be happy to help you with that.
- Be stylish when possible. Keep up with the current fashion for your age group, and match it at social events as much as possible. You can be unfashionable with your friends and your lovers (hopefully). With your work cohort or with people you’re trying to impress, still be yourself, but layer some style on top of that. Do not be that adult who dresses like a teenager. Do not be that coworker who dresses like a slob.
There is an order of preference here as well: clean > good repair > appropriate > stylish. In the modern world, with relatively inexpensive clothing options all over the place and a prevalence of running water, most people take the first two points for a given. Breaking them sets you apart from the herd, and not in a good way.
The latter two points are much more open to interpretation, and therefor much easier to manage. Appropriate clothing for most situations is a very wide range. Being minimally fashionable is not hard, and does not need to be expensive. And sometimes you can get away with being totally unstylish by just leaning into it (remember: attitude trumps attire most of the time when it comes to style). How else do you think hipsters got started?
If you think this is overly restrictive of, like, your personal self-expression and stuff, please be aware that no one else cares. This is a guide about survival. If you’re interested in living dangerously, go live dangerously and break all the rules of adult appearance. Chew with your mouth open, while you’re at it. I hope you have a trust fund.
In many ways the reputation you leave behind matters more than what you look like on any particular day. This is because someone’s impression of you is what they experienced from you yesterday, last week, last month, and last year all rolled together. You therefore have a lot of control over your reputation. To make a reputation count, you have to maintain two things: a good attitude and trust.
Here’s the thing… people don’t like other people who make them feel bad. People really like other people who make them feel good, build them up, compliment them, and make them feel comfortable. So, there are a few levels to maintaining a good attitude.
Level 1 — Don’t be an Asshole
This is really the easiest thing. If you can’t say something nice, shut your mouth. Simple. Your mamma told you this when you were five, and it remains applicable. However, with adults this includes a whole basket of other expressions — cutting looks, rolling eyes, malicious sarcasm, derogatory tones, backhanded compliments, physical and emotional bullying, etc. Don’t do these things unless you really want to make an enemy. If you want to make enemies, go nuts. Otherwise don’t. Avoiding being an asshole won’t leave people with a positive impression of you, but they won’t hate you either.
NOTE: If you use the phrases, “I’m not being rude, I’m telling it like it is,” or “I’m brutally honest,” or “I’m not into that liberal snowflake political correctness nonsense,” you’re probably being an asshole. Just something to keep in mind.
Level 2 — Don’t be a Downer
This one’s harder. Part of the point of having friends is having someone to complain to when things go wrong. But you can’t do this too often, otherwise you become that person who’s always complaining. A friend’s birthday or baby shower is not the time to discuss your crippling anxiety issues or your recent divorce.¹ And if all you do with one of your friends is complain about your life, you don’t have a friend, you have a sounding board. Sometimes it’s worth it to pretend that things are happy and sunny for a few minutes in order to not bring down someone else’s day.
Level 3 — Stop Worrying About Being “Cool”
The most uncool thing an adult can do is try to act cool. You are not in high school. There are very few “in” crowds in real life, and for the most part you don’t get into them by having the best clothes or playing sports. If you find yourself in a group that is obsessed with being “cool,” and you are not in the fashion industry or a professional sports association, you are probably hanging out with people who never grew out of their high school obsessions.
Being an adult is more interesting than just wearing Gucci or catching a ball, and the adults in the room will judge the shit out of you if that’s all you’re worried about. Don’t be cool. Be kind, interesting, and confidant. Speaking of which…
Level 4 — Maintain Your Self-Confidence
People like confident people. This is not a trivial matter, though; it’s not as simple as “fake it till you make it.” Life is basically one giant meat grinder set inside a bubble of existential uncertainty. If you’re just faking confidence, after a while something is going to come along and shatter the facade.
An important part of maintaining one’s confidence is therefore to acknowledge those things over which you have no control, and prepare yourself for them. You are going to fail at something, probably something important. You are going to be disappointed in love. You are going to be seriously injured. You are going to age. Get that in your head now, and promise yourself that you’ll bounce back after each of these events. And then realize that it’s all chaos, no one knows what they’re doing most of the time, and literally billions of people have made the same mistakes you will make. You are not alone.
Similarly, you are not, and cannot be, responsible for everything. Narrow your focus. Acknowledge that your accomplishments, however small, represent something important. Don’t worry about the universe; it can take care of itself. But it can’t fix a car, or audit a spreadsheet, or paint a picture, or build a house, or make love, or raise a child… or even sweep a floor. You can. Your successes are your own. Hold on to that thought.²
Level 5 — Build Up Others
People like people who make them feel good. More than that, people like people who pay attention to them. And even more than that, people like people who acknowledge their efforts. Therefore, one of the easiest ways to gain friends is to compliment people, acknowledge their successes, and be there for them when they fail.
It’s not necessary to do this all the time; indeed, it would be counter-productive to do so — flattery is rarely a good thing to be known for. But when someone is feeling low, that’s a fine time to compliment their sweater. When someone has given a big presentation, that’s a good time to tell them you liked it. When someone has just experienced rejection, that’s a good time to tell them things that you admire about them.
Building people up is not about flattery, but rather reinforcement. It’s not about brown-nosing, it’s about acknowledging accomplishment. It’s not about empty words, it’s about real statements. The people you build up will likely be your most loyal supporters in life. The people who build you up should receive your support as well.
In summary, maintaining a positive attitude is probably the easiest thing you can do to maintain a good personal reputation with others. It very frequently costs you nothing but words and time, and the reward is often life-long friendships and opportunity. Achieving levels 1 and 2 will at least keep you out of trouble; levels 3 and 4 will keep you moving forward as an adult; and level 5 is the “make friends and influence people” achievement.
Trust is extraordinarily important; without it, societies cannot function, or at least cannot function efficiently. Whether they understand the full implications of the concept or not, people will judge you based on how much they trust you. So, for the purposes of this discussion, here is a quick checklist of rules for maintaining trust:
- Have and adhere to a moral code: It is easier for your peers to understand your actions (and plan for them) when they understand your moral motivations. It is also easier for people to trust you when those moral motivations prevent you from stealing, for example. Most of us operate within the moral guidelines of our society, so the most important thing is practicing the moral code.³
- Be honest whenever possible: Nobody likes a fibber. It makes it more difficult for people to trust you and make plans with you if they can’t believe anything you say. From a practical perspective, it’s also incredibly difficult to be a good liar; keeping track of all the lies is exhausting. It is usually better and easier to just tell the truth. Exceptions to this rule exist, but should always be in line with rule #1.
- Be dependable: Dependability is one of the great virtues, and it rests on doing what you say you will do. It is enormously beneficial to have a reputation as a dependable person. People are more likely to trust you, confide in you, offer you work, and take you at your word. Exceptions to this rule exist, but should always be in line with rule #1.
Again, there is a preferential order at work here: #1 > #2 > #3. An honest but amoral person is basically just honestly evil. A moral person who is not always honest is still assumed to have some guiding principles. And it’s virtually impossible to be dependable without being moral or honest, unless of course you’re dependably an ass.
Last but not least, understand that trust is not an inherent quality; nobody is born trustworthy or untrustworthy. Trust is about what you do, and how you are seen to do it. Therefore, in order to be trustworthy, you have to have been in situations that require trust. This is not difficult to achieve, so long as you leave the house from time to time.
Your image is a combination of your appearance and your personal reputation. Neither of these qualities should be neglected, and indeed a large portion of our education and childhood is spent incorporating these concepts. You ignore them at your own peril.
A final word on this subject — if there is one thing I would advise anyone to keep in mind, it is: don’t be fake. Neither your appearance, your attitude, nor your trustworthiness should be a lie or an exaggeration. People hate fakers. They will eventually smell out fakeness and will call you out on it, or just start to cut you out of their lives.
If you can’t manage an item on these lists, it is better to not do it at all than to fake it. A good strategy in each of these cases might be to start at the most-important items on each list and work up from there. Humility is a thing: know yourself, know your limits, and stretch them.
¹This is an especially nasty death spiral for people who are clinically depressed. Such individuals often lose friends and confidants because the other people simply can’t handle drowning in sorrow. If you are depressed, your best bet is to seek professional help immediately. This is nothing to feel ashamed about. I’ve been depressed. Most people will experience some form of depression over their lives. The important point is to recognize depression as a hiccup in your brain’s normal functioning, acknowledge that it is something you can manage (either through chemistry or through counseling), and deal with it accordingly.
²And stay away from fashion, lifestyle, and glamour magazines. They exist to make you feel ugly and unaccomplished so that you’ll buy their advertisers’ stuff.
³This does not mean that you should blindly accept a moral code. Think before you commit.