Dress code has always been a debatable part of every workplace and what is considered appropriate in one country, may be frowned upon by other cultures. Recognising these clothing dos and don’ts may go a long way towards one’s success or failure at a new job. Here are some social norms that will help you understand office wear across cultures.
Dress-up or dress-down?
In some countries such as Argentina or Egypt suits are frequently worn both by men and women. However, in some Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, the suit itself may not be enough to look truly professional – what also plays a key role is the quality of business attire. This is especially true in Italy which is recognised as one of the most fashionable countries in the world. Therefore, if you are looking for a job in Bel Paese, an off-the-peg suit is especially likely to impress the interviewer as well as your workmates. Things are similar in some Latin American nations such as Puerto Rico or Mexico where men tend to switch regular shirt into guayabera which is especially trendy when the temperature goes up.
In some countries such as US or UK, people who have just started their career will often wear more laid-back clothes, as opposed to senior executives and managers whose attire will be more official. Hierarchy is also favoured in Japan, where workers will expect their boss to wear very smart clothes that emphasise their position in the company. The opposite is true in the Netherlands, where senior executives and bosses will dress like everyone else in the office so as to accentuate their egalitarian culture.
Religious symbols and adornments
There are also numerous attires that aim to express individual’s religion and culture, starting from hijab covering Muslim women’s heads, saree and salwar worn by Indian women, to the turbans embellishing Sikh men’s heads. One should pay particular attention to these religious symbols as they may be perceived in a widely different way depending on the country. A controversial issue related to workplace wear is the amount of skin exposed. While some countries stay rather neutral, other are particularly sensitised to it. For instance, in India and China women are expected to wear knee-length skirts and should stay away from tight-fitting clothes or low necklines. In Saudi Arabia, women can only reveal skin on their face, hands and feet. All women (including foreign and local) should also equip themselves with abaya - a cloak usually black, and a headscarf when staying in public.
You should always check if your host country hasn’t implemented a ban on certain clothes. For instance, in France it is forbidden to wear niqabs and burqas, while in North Korea and Sudan women are not allowed to wear trousers.
When it comes to colours, they convey diverse or sometimes even contrasting messages depending on the culture.
A great example can be white colour. In Western cultures white signifies purity and peace whereas in Asian cultures white is related to death, mourning and misfortune. In Egypt wearing white is a symbol of a person’s high position in the hierarchy. Another misleading colour is yellow. In most parts of North America, it is used to express warmth and happiness. In Latin America, conversely, yellow is a sign of death, suffering and mourning. Many African nations associate yellow with gold, which indicates high social status. Finally, in Malaysia yellow is the colour of Royalty and therefore wearing it would be a huge faux-pas.
As it is commonly known, one should never judge a book by its cover. Having said that, an outfit that conforms to the standards of our host country will go a long way towards a good first impression.
If you would like to learn more on this subject we recommend the following articles:
‘’Symbolism Of Colors And Color Meanings Around The World’’
‘’Avoiding Cross Cultural Faux Pas: Clothes’’
‘’Dress etiquette around the world’'