I have an interview tomorrow, and I’m expected to wear a suit and tie. Do you think I would get the job if I went in wearing sneakers and a t-shirt? Absolutely not! So what is it about the suit that sends such a powerful message to the employer? Sure, simply wearing the suit because the employer suggests it sends a message that you are willing to comply with instructions, and the employer could expect this same compliance from you as an employee, but what’s so special about a suit? I would just as willingly wear a bathing suit as a suit and tie if the employer so pleased. Then again, maybe the employer is the manager of a swimming pool and a bathing suit would be a good choice of attire. The point is that word-image relationality plays a huge role in not only the clothes you choose to wear but also the other choices you make that influence how you look, which include: piercings, makeup, hairstyle, how often you shower, and even what car you drive. All of these choices affect your image and send a message about who you are and what you aim to do. But this is where the water gets a little hazy because there is some level of interpretation involved in decoding the message that you are sending. Stereotyping is generally viewed as wrong because people tend to form a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations about a group, but make no mistake; we all use stereotyping to make judgments and decisions about people, and I would even go as far to say that this is an essential tool in life. Someone that is a “good judge of character” is nothing more than a really good stereotyper.
Imagine that you walk into a bank with the task of setting up a savings account, but you have no idea of the options available to you. Two managers come out at the same time and you have the option to choose which one will help you. One has an untucked shirt, bed head, and a Dorito crumb left over from lunch on his chin. The other is wearing a suit, frameless glasses, and his shoes are shinier than a mirror. As McCloud puts it, “The mixing of words and pictures is more alchemy than science.” This speaks to the undeniable ability of people to turn images into words and vice versa. Of course, the two people described above could both be brilliant managers, or the disheveled one could even be better. This uncertainty in decoding an image is why McCloud labels word-image relationality as “alchemy” because no one can say for sure which manager is better based solely on their appearances. On the other hand, there is an inherent urge to pick the clean cut banker because past experiences dictate that people dressed like him are more reliable, experienced, and knowledgeable.
In the end, both words and images have an effect on our decisions, but it is important to take both factors into consideration before jumping to conclusions. Just ask Will Smith:
Interviewer: What would you say if a guy walked in for an interview without a shirt on and I hired him?
Will Smith: He must’ve had on some really nice pants!