Formal or casual? Suit, slacks, or shorts? As I get ready to go to work each day, I have to mull over these tricky options, and it all depends on whom I’ll meet that day, where I’ll be, and what time of year it is. In many contexts, people may just do what others in their community do – Friday is casual, in a big international company dress will tend to be formal, while in a high tech office, people may be wearing t-shirts.
But in the field of international education, there’s no simple answer to what to wear each day. During the summer, when international student groups or trainees are visiting Yellowstone National Park or Snoqualmie Falls, riding a ferry across Puget Sound or river rafting in Montana, it’s a good idea to dress down and enjoy the outdoors. But summer’s also a time when a lot of business people are traveling and from time to time drop in unexpectedly. Senior colleagues from East Asia and the Middle East will normally wear a suit for any “official” event or meeting, so I’d better have one on as well when they come to see us. Mid-Fall and late Winter are the meat of the business calendar when international educators tend to have their “game face” on and look more serious.
Not to be caught unprepared, I recall one colleague kept a spare tie on his office door knob just in case a business visitor dropped in. Another colleague in the Middle East related to me how he was attending a staff retreat – everyone was told that they could come in casual attire. To his chagrin, everyone else showed up wearing a suit anyway just to be safe. The boss looked at my colleague and said, “where’s your tie?” Being underdressed is one of life’s most common embarrassments, and when one works with people from different cultures, it’s safest to start out too formal, rather than too casual.