They don’t know what they don’t know till you tell them.

I met with one of my students this week. She was volunteering in an administrative function and came into the office to do some filing. She walked into my office in a cute little sweater dress…emphasis on little. The topic needed to be addressed before she bent over to do the filing. I asked her to sit down and talk to me for a second before she started with the day’s work. After covering the normal pleasantries of, “how was your weekend” and “what did you do”, I asked her how she wanted the world to perceive her. She looked at me completely confused by the question. I asked her if she remembered what I had said during her orientation regarding thinking of school as a job, and that she needed to dress, prepare and act like it was a job. She quickly stated that she remembered the conversation very well, and quoted several other thinks I had also talked about.

I was confused, how could she clearly remember all I had spoken with her and her classmates about and have it not sink in? So I asked her if she thought that what she was wearing would be appropriate in a work environment; especially in the medical field, where she would be working. She immediately snapped at me, “You mean you don’t think I look cute?” I looked at her and very plainly stated, it wasn’t that I did or did not think she looked cute. She did in fact look “cute”, she did not look professional. So I asked her the same question again, “how do you want the world to perceive you?”

After several attempts at an answer and much more conversation regarding the cuteness of her outfit, she finally got the point. She never considered that her revealing outfit, could (and indeed would) keep the world from perceiving her as intelligent and professional.

Yes there are exceptions to the rule. However, they are exceptions. First impressions are so important and if the impression we are putting out there is “cute” it’s very challenging to make that jump to professional.

The next day, my student came in with a huge grin on her face, “Is this better?” she asked. And indeed it was; now she was not interview ready but she was wearing a clean, un-torn pair of pants and a more appropriate blouse. We talked more about how to be both ‘cute’ and professional, no those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Even at my age I want to look cute, however you can achieve this and still be taken seriously as a professional in your field.

Who stopped teaching us this? When does individual expression cross the line to hindering perception? How can we swing the pendulum back to where some sense of self-expression can exist in the midst of creating a professional brand?

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