If you are under or overdressed — or wearing something that is not “you,” do you need to crawl under a rock?
Little Tony was so excited about the present he was about to give to his mom — a long necklace that he had made all by himself, out of paper clips! He gave it to her on Christmas Eve, so she could have it in time to wear to midnight Mass. In the local parish, people dressed up for Christmas, and Tony's mom had great taste. She was not about to hurt her son's feelings though, so the accessory to her holiday finery for that evening was her paperclip necklace.
She was self-conscious all through the mass, and during the socializing afterwards. Years later, she still talks about it.
If you have ever received an awful gift that you felt compelled to wear at least once, or if you have ever shown up at a social event dressed far more formally or casually than everyone else, you can probably relate. Maybe the mere memory of that roomful of disapproving eyes still makes you flush with embarrassment.
There are social psychologists who do scientific research on the impressions that we make on other people. Some of their studies are rather creative — or, some would say, perverse.
Take this one, for example: College students participating in an experiment were asked to wear a t-shirt with a big picture of Barry Manilow on the front. Now not too many college students are Barry Manilow fans. So when one of these Manilow-clad students was ushered into a room with six other students (all of whom were dressed in their usual college student attire), they were mortified.
Afterwards, the researcher escorted the relieved student out of the room, and asked the student to guess how many of the others had noticed the Manilow image. Then the researcher went back in the room to see how many of the students really did notice the t-shirt.
This procedure was been repeated multiple times, with both males and females getting stuck wearing the t-shirt. Nearly all of them felt self-conscious, but they really needn't have worried. The students greatly overestimated how many others had noticed what they were wearing.
For many of us, we don't need to be wearing something embarrassing or inappropriate in order to feel self-conscious. Like the woman in the television ad who thinks her boyfriend is taking her to a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant, we might try on different clothes, fuss with our hair, maybe even practice different gestures or ways of carrying ourselves before we step out in public.
We do this because we expect other people will notice and remember how we look. It turns out, though, that not everyone is equally attentive. And there is a difference between the sexes.
Women notice and remember more details of other people's appearance. They are more likely than men to recall the color of someone’s eyes, the style of their hair and their clothes, the design of a watch or a necklace, and whether they crossed their arms or their legs.
Women are also more likely than men to have their appearance scrutinized. Other people remember more frequently how women look and carry themselves — they recall less of these qualities in men.
When it comes to interpersonal sensitivity, women often seem to be out in front. They are typically more accurate at reading other people's nonverbal cues than men are. They are also better at sizing up another person's personality based on a first impression. But women aren't always more insightful than men. If the challenge is to figure out when someone is lying and when they are telling the truth, no one is very good at it, and women have no advantage at all over men.
Even in public, we often have more privacy than we think we do. Only on TV do other people read your mind and judge every misplaced strand of hair. So next time you step into a room feeling sure that you look ridiculous, remember that most people won't even notice that your necklace is made of paperclips.