As a community planner I have to go to a wide variety of community meetings in various different communities within my district. I have to go to big communities, small communities, rich communities, not so rich communities, old communities and new communities. All of these different communities all have different perceptions and expectations on what government can do for them. Which means sometimes you have to play the part they want you to play in order for them to listen to you. And sometimes you have to play the character in which you think they will listen to the most.
Now I don’t mean that you are selling people lies and you are being someone that you are not but the community you go to will most likely dictate how you dress. For men this means, suit or no suit, tie or no tie or dress shirt and jeans. How you present yourself can be a critical factor in whether or community is going to take you seriously and work alongside you. It’s all about identifying with the needs of that particular community. You know sometimes you can never identify with the needs of that community but you have to present yourself to look like at least your competent enough to handle that community’s needs which might range from looking like an executive to looking like the common man.
A common assumption is to dress in office attire to every meeting you go to regardless of that community’s demographics. Wrong. If you come off as if you are above the people, they will not only cooperate with you but they will become hostile with you. I was at a meeting with a planning consultant in a working class waterfront community where he tried to identify himself with the residents by complaining about his sailboat located in a wealthy town down river while he wore a tweed jacket and a bowtie. Great way to identify with the constituents, pal. I was at another meeting in a historical African-American community that had faced previous decades of discrimination, where my local government was going to tear down a decrepit older school for a brand new school. Sounds good, right? The only problem was all of the local government speakers where an array of older White men in dark suits. *Slaps Face* D’oh! Needless to say it was a long night.
Unless you are about to sell them a Monorail, do not walk into a working class community meeting like this.
In situations like I described above it is best to come to these meetings in something business casual…unless it’s a final meeting or the media is going to be there. But when I have to go to my economically less advantaged and socially rich communities, I try to come in looking like the common man. Which means, no suit, no tie, top button unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, you know the look. I try to look humble. Not because it is an act but I don’t want to appear to be above them (because I’m not) and I don’t want to intimidate those who have never worked with government. When you are a big man in a suit like I am, people either think you are really serious or you are about to break someone’s thumbs.
The tireless Champion of the people. The Humbled Clay Davis
While the common man look works for residential community meetings it does not translate well with the business communities and institutional community meetings that I have to attend. When businesses are looking toward government to provide them information or work alongside government to upgrade commercial corridors, they frown upon people with unbuttoned shirts, no ties & jackets…and facial hair. There’s nothing worse when a room full of business men and women stare at you without responding to your inquiries because they do not trust what you are saying. Have you ever had to have a serious conversation with a room full of suits while you are in jeans? You feel kind of out of place. You could be in your office and you could be leading a serious discussion but you still feel that someone is going to tap you on your shoulder and ask, “Sir, where’s your jacket?” There is also nothing funnier when someone under dresses for a serious meeting and they walk in with the “Oh Sh*t!” face. You just stare at them and think to yourself, I don’t know who that guy is but he messed up.
So for all my future planners out there, I hoped were able to gain something from the fine art of meeting attire presentation. I hope you have come to learn that a suit is not always appropriate for a community meeting. For all my other fellow planners and anyone else who has to work with the public, I hope enjoyed this post. I would also like to hear some of your attire horror stories, so please leave a comment. And as always,
Thanks for reading!