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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. For more information on the book please click here.

Chapter 8: Suits Send Signals

Suits are a fact of life. In fact, suits have been a fact of life for quite awhile. As a teenager, you probably have an aversion to suits—a deep dislike that runs right to your core. I know that when I was a teenager I felt that way. I felt like a total geek whenever I had to wear "nice clothes."

And yet, I wear a suit as I am writing this. I wear a suit every day. I actually choose to wear a suit and like the fact that I do. What I would like to do here is explain what caused that transformation.

Suits are an important part of the professional world. A suit is the uniform of success. By wearing a suit you are saying, both in American culture and most other cultures on this planet, that you are succeeding. It is as simple as that. People see the suit you are wearing, and it has an effect on them. It is that way now. It has been that way for decades. It will be that way in the future. A suit is the uniform of a successful person.

Don’t believe me? Walk into any large office center, any courtroom, any large fancy hotel, any airport, any church, any meeting. Look at the people. The ones who are successful and thinking and rising are wearing suits. All of the hourly people, the gofers, the teenagers, are not. The sooner you understand this simple fact of life, the sooner you can take advantage of it in your own way.

Many people ask, "But why? Why have people chosen this ridiculous outfit as the outward symbol of success, goals and intention? It is expensive, cumbersome and absolutely worthless in any sort of inclement weather. Why? What possible purpose does a tie serve, for example? Why ties?" The answer is simply BECAUSE. It is completely random. It makes no sense. But that is how it is. You can accept it and take advantage of the effect suits have, or you can reject it. By accepting it you tend to accelerate your development.

Let me give you an example that will help you understand the effect. Let’s say you are an agent at an airline ticket counter, a police officer, a clerk at a hotel, a service station attendant or whatever. Two people are standing in front of you. One is a smartly dressed person in a suit. The other is a slouching teenager in torn and dirty clothes. Something needs to happen. Who is going to get priority? The one dressed in the suit. Almost always. You might say, "But if the clerk is another teenager the slouching teenager will get the nod." That may be true in some situations. Since there are seven times more adults than there are teenagers (see Chapter 3), it is irrelevant. The odds heavily favor the suit wearer.

Look at your own reaction to suits. When you see people wearing suits you think of them as "adult" and "meaning business" and "mature" and "in control." By wearing a suit you give off those same signals to everyone else. "Why?" Who cares? It is a fact of life. That is how our culture is wired, so begin to take advantage of it. Why does an object in mid-air fall to the ground? Because it does. You plan your life around that fact. Suits are the same way.

Let’s say you listen to this discussion and you decide to investigate its validity. You could do that. It would be a very interesting experiment for you to perform. It would be easier to try if you are in college, but you could theoretically try it in high school. First of all, get a suit. You are going to find this is not easy if you don’t already own one. A nice suit, shirt, tie and shoes will run you $300 to $1,000 (1997), depending on what level of quality you are looking for. Go to a nice department store that is having a sale; you can’t go far wrong. Buy a good, conservative suit. That means a darker color like charcoal or dark blue. Get a nice shirt, a nice tie and nice, shineable shoes. Now wear this outfit all the time, every day, everywhere you go, for a month. I am not kidding. It will take you a week at least to feel comfortable in it. It will take another week for you to forget you have it on. Your friends will harass you mercilessly for a period of time as well. Ignore them. Tell them you are trying an experiment. During the third and fourth week, after you and everyone around you have settled down, watch the difference a suit makes in how people treat you and how you feel. It will be subtle, but you will notice it. You will find that people you know, especially adults, treat you differently. You will find that strangers treat you differently as well. They treat you with a different level of respect. You will find that a suit also changes what you say and how you act. It is very surprising.

The other thing you will notice is that a huge number of other people are wearing suits. All of them are adults. All of them are successful—business people, entertainers, high-end sales people and so on. Every important person on TV is wearing a suit. Every person in charge of things is wearing a suit. You ignored all of these people before because you were in the "flunky teenager" category. Suddenly, they become visible because you are a member of their club. There are certain environments where suit-wearers tend to congregate, and now you will fit right in. You will find that the people wearing the suits are the ones who are successful.

A lot of teenagers look at the "adult world" and decide they can be more adult-like and "grown up" by wearing lots of makeup or smoking or drinking coffee. They are TOTALLY missing it. You fit into the adult world by wearing a suit and acting like an adult.

Other Rules of the Road

While you are wearing your suit, it is good to know the other "rules of the road" in the adult world. People expect a certain level of behavior from suit-wearers, and you may be unfamiliar with them. Here are a number of the most basic:

The Psychological Effect of Suits

I spend a lot of time with clients. I may go to a client’s company and work there for a week or a month at a time. I always wear a suit. In many smaller companies I will be the only one in the office wearing a suit. You can best see the psychological effect of a suit in these situations. If a stranger walks in and sees me, the stranger will automatically make the assumption that I am "in charge" simply because of the way I am dressed. I am the one in the suit, so obviously I know what is going on! If you watch, you will notice that you make that same assumption in many situations. By wearing a suit you can take advantage of this effect.

  • When two adults meet, they shake hands—This is a very odd custom, especially when you are first learning it. However, it is universal in American culture and many others. Two adults on first meeting will offer their right hands and shake. You might say, "Hi, my name is John Smith. I am glad to meet you," as you are shaking. The first 100 times you do this it will feel awkward. Practice, practice, practice until it is totally natural. Practice with your parents if you have no one else.
  • Offer your hand—Even if the other adult does not, always offer your hand to shake. If the other person fails to respond, it means he or she is uncouth. Say something to make them comfortable in their uncouthness, such as, "I’m glad to see you! Let me shake your hand." The other adult might be clueless or distracted rather than uncouth. By offering your hand you send the signal that you are in control.
  • Always lead with your own name—A person who states his or her name clearly right up front is saying to the world, "I am John Smith, and I am proud, confident and honest." If you weren’t confident you would be afraid to state your name. If you were dishonest you would try to hide your name. Always state your name up front.
  • Shake hands firmly—When you shake hands, do so firmly and look the person in the eye as you are shaking. This is another sign of honesty and confidence.
  • Smile—Who wants to talk to unhappy people?
  • Remember the person’s name—People like it when you remember their names. Practice this skill. A time-honored technique used to remember a person’s name is to repeat it. For example, "Hello, My name is John Smith." "I am glad to meet you John; my name is Mary Johnson." "I am glad to meet you, Mary…" If you forget someone’s name it is OK to ask them to repeat it. Say, "I’m sorry, I have forgotten your name." It happens to everyone.
  • Get a haircut—There is nothing more ridiculous to an adult than a person in a suit who has a non-suit haircut. Get a professional, business-like haircut to go with your suit. You may feel silly when you first look at it. Here is a fact: You and maybe a few of your friends are the only people who feel that way. The whole rest of the world expects a haircut that matches the suit. In this same category goes, "Shine your shoes." If you are going to do this, do it right.
  • If you want to speak with an adult, offer to make an appointment. Say something like, "Is this a convenient time, or could we schedule a time that would be better for you?" Adults are busy people. Their time is valuable. Show up on time for your appointment. It is important to keep all of your commitments, both large and small. Adults notice people who do not keep small commitments because it often means the larger ones won’t be kept as well.
  • Speak clearly—Speak as an adult would speak rather than using teenage slang. You can learn the "institutional language" that adults use by spending time in institutional environments. As with any foreign language, the more time you spend immersed in the culture the better you get at the language.
  • Watch your language—Cussing is out. So is yelling.
  • Be polite (see Chapter 22).
What you will notice is that if you dress like an adult and act like an adult, people will assume you are an adult and treat you like one. This treatment can have huge advantages, especially for a teenager. In a business environment wearing a suit sends a signal to those around you about your attitude and intent.

Defining a Suit

The definition of a suit for a man is extremely clear. A suit is a jacket and a pair of pants cut from the same cloth, along with a dress shirt and a nice tie. For a woman a suit is a jacket and a skirt or pants in matching material, along with a nice business-like blouse.

One step below a suit is "sports jacket" or "blazer" worn with a pair of nice slacks (or for women a skirt). Men wear a nice shirt and tie, while women wear a nice blouse. The jacket and the pants/skirt are made of different materials/colors and do not match.

One step below that is "business casual." It consists of a nice dress shirt and nice slacks, but no tie for men. For women pants and skirts are interchangeable, with skirts considered slightly more dressy. No jeans, no T-shirts, and usually no "polo shirts" either, but that depends on the environment.

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This is a chapter from the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9, published by BYG Publishing, Inc. For more information on ordering a copy of the book, click here.

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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teen age, teenage, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent