I’ve changed my mind gradually over the years. Clothes provide cues and clues to their wearer’s interests, education level, age, and social groups. This is important to writers because we have to be able to evoke all kinds of messages through people’s dress in our work. It’s also important to humans in general because it can be used, for better or worse, to categorize people and give us advance warning about how to respond to them.
But I still figured I was exempt from bias based on attire. Until I went to the doctor’s a few days ago. I was finishing up my appointment when a woman stepped into the exam room. My doc had mentioned consulting with another physician. But when I saw the newcomer, I was flabbergasted. Leaving aside the question of what a “flabber” is and how you “gast” it, I was taken aback because she wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a casual t-shirt.
Immediately I became uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell if she was a health care provider (Nurse? Doctor? Physician’s assistant?), or someone who’d wandered into the facility from the very urban streets nearby. Should I greet her? Duck behind the door? Scream for help? No clues about her job or level of responsibility. Did she report to my doctor or vice versa?
After my doctor asked the woman to locate some equipment, I realized she must be some sort of assistant. But I still was uneasy. I began to realize that how others dress has a major impact on me, and her lack of any professional signals established an initial level of distrust that she’d have to work hard to overcome. Her appearance obfuscated* her role.
I’m trying to take this knowledge as an insight into human behavior. I want to guard against, compensate for, this instantaneous prejudice when I meet strangers. But mostly what I want to do is alert my doctor and the assistant that she should dress in a manner to make patients comfortable, not ill at ease.
*obfuscate: render incomprehensible