Q: Is there anything I can do, clothing-wise or behaviorally, to make myself more approachable?
A: So maybe you’ve been told that you’re intimidating – or maybe “cold.” Maybe you work in a job that requires people to feel comfortable talking to you when they need help. Can you improve your approachability? Some research suggests that you can, from the Journal of Academic Librarianship in 2013.
- A group of researchers sought to uncover some factors that influence approachability in a particular field: library science.
- Why library science? Well, librarians work best when library patrons feel they can ask questions. A librarian that seems cold, closed-off, or otherwise unapproachable can’t help people. If people can’t get the help they need at a library, they’ll likely seek their information elsewhere (the internet, online databases, friends, etc.).
- So these researchers sought to determine what factors make a librarian seem approachable.
- They noticed that in previous research, clothing color, facial expressions, and formal attire all influence how approachable a person seems.
- They devised a study to test these factors on approachability.
- The researchers got 48 photographs with people (hypothetical “libarians”) with various facial features, ethnicities, both genders, clothing, and settings from a large number of databases and previous studies.
- Half were male, half were female.
- Half were younger, half were older.
- 4 were White, 4 African American, and 4 Asian.
- Basically a ton of different combinations of factors!
- Then, based on input from a group of students, the images were narrowed down to 12. They still tried to get a diversity of ethnicities, ages, both genders, etc.
- Then, each image was digitally manipulated to display a variety of characteristics. For instance, they took the image of an African American woman and created a:
- Smiling version vs. neutral version.
- Version with/without a nametag
- Formal attire vs. plain shirt.
- Looking down at a computer vs. looking at a book vs. looking up at viewer.
- Red shirt vs. white shirt vs. blue shirt.
- As you can guess, they ended up with a HUGE number of photographs! There were 96 total.
- Then, the researchers got 1015 participants and divided them into two groups. Each group got a random image from one of the image pairs (for instance: one group got a red shirt, some got a white shirt) and the participants were asked to:
- “Imagine you need to ask a librarian a question. Rate the approachability of this hypothetical librarian.”
- 1 = least approachable, 10 = most approachable
- The researchers compared the vast number of changed variables to see which factors mattered and in what ways to influence approachability.
- As one might expect, no matter what the librarian’s age, race, clothing, or behavior, smiling had a significant effect.
- Smiling improves approachability for everyone.
- In fact, the researchers found that smiling was the most powerful factor on approachability in the whole study.
Direction of Gaze
- This one makes sense, too: when a librarian had their nose in a book or was staring at a computer, they were seen as less approachable.
- This effect was the same for all types of people (ages, races, etc.).
- Having a nametag increased librarians’ approachability.
- This was the same across all types, but not to the same degree. For instance, nametags increased approachability for younger people way more than older people.
- But still, no matter who the image depicted, they were seen as more approachable if they were wearing a nametag.
Formality of Clothing
- Here’s where things get interesting.
- Formal clothing improved approachability for men, but worsened approachability for women.
- Formal clothing improved approachability for older people (men and women), but worsened approachability for younger people (men and women).
- Why is this the case? You can come up with your own theories, but the researchers simply suggested that it had something to do with stereotypes about men and women and older vs. younger people.
- But the takeaway is that older people wearing formal clothing are seen as more approachable than younger people wearing formal clothing.
Color of Clothing
- Again, interesting results.
- Generally, blue was the most approachable color.
- Red negatively impacted approachability across the board.
- White was in-between. It was seen as less approachable compared to blue, but more than red.
- The negative impact of red may have been due to red’s perceived connection to dominance, aggression, and danger.
- If you want to increase your approachability, here are some suggestions from the research:
- Facial Expression: SMILE! This had the biggest impact of all factors.
- Direction of Gaze: Averting your eyes, avoiding eye contact, or appearing distracted or busy with something else all decrease your approachability.
- Nametag: In certain professions, having a nametag may be an appropriate way to increase approachability. However, this isn’t going to apply to all professions! A presidential candidate probably shouldn’t wear a nametag to increase approachability, for instance.
- Formality of Clothing: If you’re a young man, don’t be afraid to wear something nice, professional, and appropriate. That’s what this site is all about! However, “overdressing” as a young man will likely hurt your approachability. By contrast, older men significantly benefit from more formal clothing when it comes to approachability.
- Color of Clothing: To appear more approachable, try blue, and to a lesser extent, white. Avoid red in your wardrobe.
Bonnet, J. L., & McAlexander, B. (2013). First impressions and the reference encounter: The influence of affect and clothing on librarian approachability. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 39, 335-346. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0099133312001930