Saturday, May 29, 2010

Slipping On The Noose

About six months ago, I was unceremoniously introduced to the world of the unemployed. I blogged about it at the time, as I do regarding most significant life-changing events. Last week's post contained a less-than-subtle hint that I've since managed to find new employment. Allow me to make it official and announce, formally, that I am indeed working again. Hooray for me!

My new employer requires that all male employees wear neckties. It's a technology company that services external customers, some of whom occasionally visit our offices, so the owners want everyone looking professional. Fair 'nuff.

I once read a quote (whose source I, unfortunately, don't know) which declared that neckties are for "compulsive neurotics who were prematurely toilet-trained" (and who) "carefully line up pencils on otherwise clear desks." Is that the image that we want to project to our clientele, gentlemen? Do we want to look like a bunch of wieners? Hmmm?

I haven't had to wear a necktie at work for over fifteen years. My very first job was with a very small startup venture whose offices were inconspicuously located in a tiny little rural town above a Stedman's store. Most of the employees were kids fresh out of college like myself. It was a very informal environment and we didn't get a lot of outside customers visiting us so we dressed casually.

My next job was with a medium-sized appliance manufacturer. It was a much more formal environment infested with V.P.s, managers and human resource wonks who all apparently placed a fair degree of importance on employee attire, so the men were expected to wear collared, button-down shirts, creased pants and, of course, the ubiquitous necktie.

My next two or three jobs also required me to wear a tie ... at first. Around the mid nineteen-nineties, however, business attitudes in general began to relax somewhat. More and more companies began to abandon the archaic insistence on the necktie in favor of a new standard of attire that became known as "business casual". Men were still required to wear shirts with buttons and collars, but the necktie was no longer mandatory and the pants need not be creased (although blue jeans were still considered "pantalones non grata"). The nicest thing, to me, about losing the necktie was that I could now wear short-sleeved shirts on warm days. You just can't wear a necktie with a short-sleeved shirt, unless you want to walk around looking like NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz.

Trends tend to be prone to a slippery slope effect and so, for the next few years, office dress codes continued to relax even more. By the time I returned to the aforementioned appliance manufacturer for my second tour of duty in 1999, office staff were wearing jeans and T-shirts to work. I'll concede that the workplace dress code pendulum may have swung a little too far in the opposite direction. The main problem here is that there will always be that small contingent of people with no sense of style or taste. You know what I'm talking about. The Wal-Mart crowd. They cause offense or embarrassment (for the human race in general), co-workers complain to management and management responds in the same way that they always do; with knee-jerk overreactions. Rather than dealing with the small handful of offenders individually, they pass sweeping policies and, before you know it, everybody's wearing neckties again. I've noticed a gradual shift back toward more formal office attire policies over the past five years or so among companies in general, not just my former employer.

What's the deal with neckties anyway? What, exactly, is the appeal of this decorative bit of silk (or polyester for the budget-minded) hanging from a man's throat? They have no practical purpose. They're not wide enough to be effective bibs or, if they are, you shouldn't be wearing them. They make you hot in the summertime, yet they really don't warm you up in the winter; not like an ascot, which is practically a scarf!

I did a little research on the history of the necktie. Seems that men have found it necessary to wear some form of ornamental decoration around their necks since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians, the Chinese and the Romans all wore ornamental neckwear that resembled ancestors of the modern contemporary necktie. These generally indicated social status in some manner, which explains why, even today, the higher one ranks on the corporate ladder, the more likely one is to be seen wearing a tie.

Since it's been so long since I've had to wear neckties on a regular basis, many of the ties that I still had were showing their age, so I bought some new ones. The other day, during an idle moment at the office, I took a moment to examine the tie that I was wearing a little more closely. "Montebello", read the label, "100% silk". Ooh! Italian silk! Classy! Then, underneath that, "Made in China". Ah! Apparently, this is a product of those well-known Chinese silk traders, the Montebellos, not to be confused with the notorious Sicilian Yuang family.

I once had a debate with a former work colleague about not just neckties, but office attire in general. The company for which we both worked at the time still required men to wear neckties. I, being always a bit of a rebel, had expressed a desire to dress more casually, especially since we never had external customers in our offices at the time. "Who were we impressing?" I challenged, "Each other?"

My workmate countered with the premise that one's attire affects one's work ethic. He seemed to be suggesting that, if we were to dress casually, our work habits would likewise become increasingly lax. What nonsense! I pointed out that, if he truly believed that, then he would be obliged to dress up when he had to come in to the office on the occasional weekend, as sometimes happened, or even if he were to work out of his home. He conceded that he wouldn't likely take the philosophy quite that far.

On the other hand, another gentleman whose acquaintance I recently made expressed the opinion that our attire affects the attitudes and demeanors of those with whom we come in contact. The example he gave was that of walking into an everyday coffee shop and, here, I'm talking about a real coffee shop; a Tim Horton's, not some pretentious Starbucks or William's. If you walk in wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap, you'll likely be greeted with something akin to "Yeah, what'll ya have?" Walk in wearing a dress shirt, pressed pants and a tie, on the other hand, and you're much more likely to hear "Good morning, sir, how can I help you today?" Here, I'm inclined to agree. Our appearance has a decided impact on how people regard us.

Being a little older and, hopefully, a little wiser than I was when I had that debate about office attire with my old colleague, my rebellious attitude toward neckties has mellowed somewhat. I no longer detest them quite as much as I used to. Heck, I even have a little fun with them. This past week, I walked into the office one day sporting a plain but very bright canary-yellow tie against a dark mauve shirt. An exercise in contrast. The following day, I wore a tie whose color matched that of the shirt that I wore so closely that, at first glance, you almost couldn't tell that I was wearing one (a tie, I mean, not the shirt). Yes, I've learned to accept the necktie, although I'm still no Bryan Ferry.


Candy said...

Hey Andy,

In 1981 when I was a letter carrier (not mailman), I (yes a woman) was required to wear a neck tie and know how to tie it properly as well. It didn't matter how hot it was or if it was covered in raingear and pouring out. One supervisor did spot checks in the rain to see if both men and women were sporting their neck ties even if they weren't seen. By the way, we were only allowed the "postal navy" tie on the lighter blue shirt. No options.

Feel better now?

Halmanator said...

Only insofar as you seem to support my argument about how silly and superficial the whole corporate attitude toward neckties is.