You have seven seconds to make a first impression. Or maybe up to thirty, depending on which study you put your faith in. Either way, an overwhelming deluge of research on the matter consistently agrees on two points: everyone you meet is in a hurry to make up their mind about you, and once they do, it’s pretty hard to change.
That may sound shallow, but since the days of running from sabre toothed tigers, humanity has been hardwired to make lightning-fast assessments just to survive. Is that animal predator or prey? Is this person a future friend or potential foe? Can he be trusted and collaborated with or should he be avoided?
Though the stakes are considerably lower in our comparatively mundane first-world existence, we still follow these instincts. Sure that big guy with the biker jacket and neck tattoos might be an upstanding gentleman, but our intuition nudges us away from asking him to watch our bag while we use the restroom.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the first moments of sizing up a new acquaintance may as well be exchanging autobiographies. On a subconscious level, both parties assess each other’s identity, values, and trustworthiness. We’re all in this game of mutual appraisal regardless of whether or not we choose to actively participate.
That is why every man needs to care about his style and the messages he is conveying through it: style is visual language and it pays to be fluent, if not eloquent, in its use.
Think of when you wear a suit to a job interview; it declares that you take the opportunity seriously and that you understand the expectations common to this scenario. Those visual statements are probably in line with your intentions thus far. Elementary linguistic proficiency; you can say hello and good morning.
Now where things get a bit trickier is when you try to relay finer details. If you’re interviewing for a position at an esteemed law firm, wearing a floral shirt does not convey staunch professionalism to a prospective employer. Mismatching brown shoes with a black belt contradicts your claims of a meticulous and detail-oriented disposition.
On the other hand, an aptly-orchested outfit starring your tailored navy suit, a white poplin dress shirt, a solid tie, and black cap-toe oxfords imply a level of refinement befitting of the job. Now your image is in line with the message your words strive to convey; this is sartorial fluency.
Better yet, let’s suppose you’re not just proficient in the language of style, but eloquent. At first glance your outfit hardly differs from the last in that you still appear polished, but also understated. Closer inspection highlights the textures of your French-cuffed dobby dress shirt, your deftly-knotted grenadine necktie (dimple and all), and it’s topped off by a tie clip matching the metal of your cufflinks. The message is unchanged but your delivery has been elevated from expected to excellent.
Stylistic ineptitude undermines credibility; fluency in style aligns your image to your self-perception; and sartorial eloquence projects an aura of capability that may even exceed reality. No amount of style can replace substance, but visual charisma affords you the benefit of the doubt.
First impressions are lasting, so it behooves you to do all that you can to make a good one.
Does this mean that you should wear a suit everywhere that you go? Absolutely not!
Just as there is no perfect script that translates to all social scenarios, there is no outfit that expresses you favorably in every outing. The same suit and tie that helped you nail your interview looks a lot less impressive on a weekend coffee date. Though appearing polished and professional elicited confidence in that case, here and now, your stuffy work attire reads as try-hard and pretentious.
Probably not what you were going for.
At the end of the day style is equal parts self-expression and personal branding. It’s not about expensive or trendy garments; it’s about crafting an image that represents you in the light that you want it to. And to control the message you project, you must first learn the language.
Luckily that just comes down to practice. Every single day, you’re surrounded by ample opportunity to do just that.
Pay attention to the people around you: look at them and inspect the assumptions you make based on their appearance. What can you deduce from their image? Do you think they’re projecting the message that they intend to?
Look at yourself in the mirror and ask those same questions. Repeat and adjust as necessary. Represent yourself through your image a little bit better each day, until people can sense that you’re a man to trust and respect from the second they lay eyes on you.
Or don’t. Most men never give it a second thought, much less dedicated effort. Whether you decide to trod alongside them or rise above them, we all still have between seven and thirty seconds to nail a first impression. The game carries on, whether we decide to play or not.