Suits Show Signal Scope

Two years ago I posted on the puzzle of yes men. A simple story says bosses evaluate subordinate expertise via the deviation between subordinate and boss opinions. This predicts bosses hiding their opinions as long as possible. Yet real bosses often reveal opinions early, encouraging “yes men.” I suggested that this is because large boss-subordinate opinion deviations make bosses look bad as well as subordinates. While higher bosses who only cared to evaluate this boss would punish them for encouraging yes men, when they themselves seek to look good to still higher bosses, they’d rather allow such encouragement, while pretending otherwise.

A lot of signaling analysis imagines just two parties, the party signaling and the party interpreting the signal. But often signals have a wider scope – signal interpreters often care a lot about how still other parties will interpret their signal interpretation. For example, even if you didn’t wear a suit to a job interview, in the hour long interview you might still convince your interviewer that you’d be a capable productive employee. Yet that interviewer could still be reluctant to hire you, knowing they’d have to explain the hire to others who know you didn’t wear a suit. Interviewers can similarly be reluctant to hire a competent person from a low ranked college, if others might hear of this fact and think less of them.

The interview suit example brings to mind the question: what distinguishes social situations where we wear suits from those where we don’t? We wear suits to funerals, weddings, in court, and when we represent some groups to other groups. At work suits are also worn in sales, management, finance, and law. And a common factor distinguishing these situations seems to be a wide social scope of our signals. We tend to wear suits to events where wider audiences, who don’t know much about us, are more likely to see or hear about and interpret our behavior, especially norm deviations. A suit is a standard respectful clothing with low style variance to minimize the chance of accidentally giving offense.

Our use of language in such “formal” situations of wide signal scope also tends to be designed to be respectful, conservative, and careful, i.e., to minimize the chance of being interpreted negatively by others who don’t know us well. I’ve written before on farming towns being especially effective at encouraging such careful conformist behavior, and on school today teaching students to send the right signals to wider audiences.

What about entertainers, who often wear “wild” clothing yet clearly seek to impress a wide audience that cares about what still others think of their entertainment choices? Since such entertainers are often especially valued for their originality, defiance, or trend foresight, they must often walk a very fine line between looking unimpressive via seeming too conservative, and giving too much offense by being wild in the wrong way. I envy them not.

On average, a wider variance in clothing style is tolerated for women relative to men at high visibility events like weddings or dances. Does this mean men tend to be evaluated by a wider scope than women? Do women care more about what other women think of their man than men care about what other men think of their woman?

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