Subconsciously, others deem all variables under our control as a reflection of our character.
There is a near constant complaint that surveyors are underappreciated and suffer an undignified public image. While this is undoubtably the case for many surveyors, others have acquired traits enabling them to avoid that fate. How do they do that? Why are some surveyors able to rise above the perception of a mechanic, while others seem condemned to that station? There are a number of interrelated factors that contribute to our overall image—each entitled to as much treatment as space allows for here. For this reason, I have decided to make this the first of a short series.
Our image is based upon others’ impression of us. It is an indication of our success (or failure) at instilling confidence in our character. Viewed from that perspective, it follows that the factors contributing to that confidence would have more impact on our image than anything else. One factor dwarfs all others: physical appearance.
It is hard to believe that the importance of physical appearance even requires discussion. The general "look" of many surveyors, however, suggests that the principle has eluded them. A Harvard study found that only seven percent of a first impression is based on what one says. Thirty-eight percent is drawn from how one sounds, while a whopping 55 percent is based on how one looks. It doesn’t take much insight to conclude that appearances count—perhaps more than they should, but they still do. This tendency of human nature was recognized millennia ago. In 50 B.C., the Roman philosopher Publius Syrus observed, "A good exterior is a silent recommendation."
It cannot be denied that properly dressed and groomed surveyors enjoy a vast advantage in respect over their poorly dressed peers. We may grouse under our breath about the unfairness of it all, but wait—despite the fact that one of the tenets of our egalitarian society is, "It’s what you know that counts," we routinely draw inferences from appearances. For instance, we presume that younger-looking people have less experience than older-looking folks. We conclude that large, well appointed homes are indications of wealth. We react to visual stimuli hundreds of times each day. Why should we expect that others won’t as well?
We cannot depend on technical competence alone to build our image for us. In fact, I would argue that, from the public’s perspective, image has almost nothing to do with technical proficiency. I once worked in a county where, 20 years before, a surveyor had had a thriving boundary retracement practice. His technical abilities left something to be desired, and he suffered the general reputation in the surveying community of doing sloppy work. While I never met him, I am convinced he must have projected an image of competence and authority. I know this from having spoken both with people who worked with him and with those for whom he worked. Property owners who had their lot corners staked by this man spoke of his monuments with awe. "Oh no, there is no doubt about that pipe. Mr. X put it there." Here is a clear-cut example—and I have run into several instances of this—where image far exceeded technical ability. To this day, older residents of that county remember that surveyor with a respect all out of proportion to his actual expertise. Am I suggesting that only appearance counts or that proficiency doesn’t matter? Of course not. But proficiency without respect invites others to second-guess every decision we make and forces us to prove ourselves again and again.
Some state societies apparently have convinced their members that appearance matters. While attending the Michigan conference earlier this year, I was impressed by the general appearance of the attendees. Where other societies have meetings punctuated by an informal/casual look, Michigan clearly meant business. The vast majority were dressed in suits or sport jackets. There can be no doubt that the unspoken message sent by such behavior enhances the atmosphere of the gathering, which in turn reinforces the attitude of the participants. Nice job, Michigan.
A respectable appearance is comforting to clients. Surveyors are hired, usually, by decision-makers. Few managers are blessed with knowing all the facts bearing on a situation and yet, decisions have to be made. How can one be sure the information he bases his decision on will be correct and complete? Hiring consultants who project an image of reliability helps ease the anxiety of uncertainty by placing some of the unknowns in capable hands. It is purely a pragmatic action, albeit probably a subconscious one.
Co-workers are also affected by our appearance. Proper attire conveys an impression of seriousness and reliability. Beyond dress, an attitude and manner that bespeaks a sense of purpose persuades colleagues to trust in one’s abilities. Many surveyors project an image akin to a technician—a small cog in a large wheel, rather than as a professional—one in control of the situation. Surveyors in multi-disciplinary firms know that a constant tension exists between surveyors and those of other technical disciplines. This tension, stemming from our different perspective on the design process and from the general ignorance of nonsurveyors about how surveys are conducted, can be considerably relieved if our associates get the unspoken message that we know what we’re talking about.
The appearance of our facilities also broadcasts information about us. Is there so much dirt in your truck that prairie dogs would feel at home? Would your assistants be surprised to learn the color of your desktop? Does your office give the impression of quiet competence or frazzled confusion? Subconsciously, others deem all variables under our control as a reflection of our character.
So, can we ignore the tendency to draw inferences from visual impressions? Of course—many surveyors do (some intentionally). But we cannot if we expect our image to compare favorably with that of other professions. The fact remains that appearance is a strong component of image. Draw your own conclusions; you can be sure that others will.
Copyright © 1997 By Joel M. Leininger, LS