Monday Musings: On Looks, Perception, & Non-Verbal Communication…

Work Mode/Casual Mode

Work Mode/Casual Mode

I took a “selfie” this weekend…more to show off my new hat than anything else, because it’s a cool hat (in my opinion), and a rare occurrence to get a new one. And once I’d taken it, I decided to replace my current profile pic on my personal Facebook profile with it. For awhile, anyway.

Naturally, this got me thinking (as most things do). Because there’s so much more to taking a “selfie” than just point & shoot, and more yet involved in setting a profile picture. If that’s not the case for you…welcome to my over-analyze-everything brain. Yes, it’s always like this. No, I can’t turn it off.

Smile? Normal expression? Coy? Serious? Straight on? Sideways look? Tongue sticking out? 

Good grief. The whole thing makes me roll my own eyes, for cryin’ out loud. Just get over yourself, woman, and snap a damn pic. So I did.

The thing is, I’m comfortable being around people with make-up or no make-up, hair done or hat on, t-shirt & jeans or work clothes & heels. But people definitely react to me differently depending on whether I’m in work mode or casual. Part of it is who I am – when I’m in work mode with hair, makeup & the whole bit, I’ve got stricter filters (well, usually), and I’m even more reserved than normal. This serves me well for situations where productivity and working well with others is key.

When I’m in casual mode, it normally means a hat, no makeup, jeans or shorts & a t-shirt, looser personal filters and a more relaxed, easy-going vibe (as much as I ever give, anyways). This also serves me well when I’m interacting with people who are more comfortable around a more casual persona. It would not work so well at work – while it would be fine with my colleagues (I work in tech, so it’s a casual bunch), it wouldn’t keep me in the proper mindset for keeping things professional with customers & the other people in the building I work with.  A casual appearance invites people to be casual, a professional one establishes a professional boundary from the start. It’s an instinctual thing – most of the time, we don’t even realize we do it, but all of us react that way to some extent or another.

Note that when I look in the mirror on casual/work days (or even at the above photos – I took the work mode one this morning before work, just for you), the difference I see in my own appearance is subtle. The reactions I get from people used to seeing me one way or the other, but not both, are far more dramatic than I’m usually expecting, because I just don’t see a huge difference, personally. Isn’t it weird how perception works?

When I went to the comic book store the other week in “half-casual/half-work” (Friday) mode (jeans, but hair/makeup done), the poor comic store guy seemed uncomfortable, but he’s used to casual me, and my “work look” puts a wall up that doesn’t need to be there with him. He didn’t even remember my name, when he normally remembers exactly who I am. I actually felt bad for flustering him, but it’s pretty rare I have time to stop in and get my comics when I’m in work mode, so not something that will happen often. When I stopped in this weekend in normal casual mode, he called me by name right away and was his normal, helpful self.

The first time my dog’s vet saw me in work mode, he didn’t even recognize me at first. But even though he’s always a very nice, helpful, respectful guy, he was more professional with me that day than he normally is when I’m in casual mode. In that case, it was a good thing. No, it doesn’t mean I’m going to put makeup on every time I take the dogs in. I’m far too lazy for that. Just an interesting observation.

And it doesn’t make him a bad guy for reacting differently either – it’s a hard-wired, subconscious reaction, not something any of us have control over.

It’s not limited to men, either. Even the ladies who ring my groceries up at the grocery store have commented they didn’t recognize me at first when I stop in after work for something quick, because I shop on Sunday mornings, so ultra-casual mode there. A couple of them couldn’t figure out what was different until I told them (hair/makeup/clothes) – they just knew that something was definitely different. And yes, they treat me differently, to my detriment, much like the comic book store. When I’m casual, they’ll chit-chat with me while checking my order out, just being friendly. They’re much more reserved when I’m in work mode…that invisible professional boundary again. Again, a subconscious reaction on their part – I’m sure they didn’t realize they were doing it, it’s just the result of a change in perception.

What’s all this have to do with my FB profile pic? Everything, really. I normally keep my pics in “work mode” territory, because you never know who will be looking you up, and work mode doubles as “protective” mode in a bunch of relative strangers. It’s the reserved side of me with stricter filters & tighter boundaries, which I exercise more than people probably realize online, and even just seeing my own pic reminds me that I’m in “work mode” online. So to post a casual mode pic…yeah, that required some serious thought. Not because I’m self-conscious about how I look one way or the other (critically, I mean – I look like what I look like), but because it instantly removes some of those “walls” that keep people at a distance, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. I’m still not sure how long I’ll leave it like that, honestly, considering the wide swath of people I’m in contact with as well as people who might just peek at my profile here and there, even if they don’t outright friend me.

I think it’s a very powerful communication tool to take note of how people perceive us, and when it suits our purpose, to adjust accordingly. I know there’s a lot of pressure to “don’t pay attention to others” and “look how you want”, and overall, that’s a good message. But at the same time, paying attention and presenting yourself in such a way as to take advantage of a key tool in non-verbal communication just gives you more power in any social situation. And for someone like me who already sort of flounders socially, it’s good to have that confidence and control.

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