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Dress Standards Vary Among the Generations

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I recently moved to Southern California from a large city and am appalled the way people my age and even younger dress. I am retired and still feel it is important to dress well. It makes a statement to others. Furthermore, I find the manners, particularly of younger people, disturbing. I have a grandson who soon will graduate from college and wonder if his poor manners will prevent him from being hired. OK, I have been called a bit rigid, but I still believe that etiquette has a role in our society. As a 75-year- old well-dressed grandmother, where can I exert my influence?

Answer: You have raised two important points. The first addresses generational differences in values and the second is what young adults need to learn about etiquette if they want to be hired. Let’s begin with generational differences.

Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman, in their book “When Generations Collide” (Collins Business, 2002), discuss the differences among generations. They group together the Traditionalists, born prior to 1946, and the Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. They compare these two groups to the Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, and the Millennials, born between 1981 and 1999. (Note: Experts offer varying dates to define these generations.)

Clothing choices and appropriate dress are influenced by generational values as well as workplace cultures. Here is a little historical context:

According to the authors, Traditionalists and Boomers faced a lot of competition in getting hired. They believed that others judged them by how serious they were in pursuing job opportunities. Consequently, these Traditionalists and Boomers wanted to be seen as professional and not frivolous.

To emphasize their seriousness and professionalism, the Traditionalists, in particular, conformed to a workplace that was formal, with specific dress codes and rules of conduct. Men wore suits, ladies wore stockings and only certain items were considered appropriate on one’s desk. Conformity was considered important in reaching a goal.

The Gen Xers and Millennials observed Boomers as they competed with one another, having very little fun. This succeeding generation wanted to make fun part of their work; they loosened their neckties, wanting to remake the American workplace.

To some extent, they were successful. They created a work environment that was more casual, where peers (in many cases) helped each other and fun was a natural form of collaboration. Enter casual Fridays of khakis and soft-collared shirts for men and comfy slacks and even nice jeans for women.

Having fun at work has become a business opportunity, as evidenced by the website of the Fun at Work Company ( It also has become an event: April 11 has been deemed the 15th annual International Fun at Work Day.

Technology also has had an impact on dress standards, as it eliminated barriers between work and home. Physical location and dress have become almost irrelevant. We’ve all heard about important business calls being conducted from the beach or wearing pajamas and slippers as a deal is being negotiated.

Add to this the growing number of entrepreneurs who are sole proprietors, working alone. In fact, the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs is women age 40 to 59, who likely have developed their own dress code.

Lancaster and Stillman write, “There is something to be said for each generation inventing distinctive etiquette rules: What’s wrong with differentiating? Haven’t we learned from the diversity movement that different isn’t necessarily bad?”

However, they note, expressing yourself is one thing; making someone else feel badly or uncomfortable is another. In a survey they conducted, participants reported the biggest etiquette offenses in the workplace occurred in three areas: phone manners, forms of address and dress code.

Let’s take a huge leap from the workplace to retirement or later life. Generations are likely to be different in how they dress based on generational values and workplace experiences.

And then there is the weather factor: Southern California, with beautiful sunny weather and beaches, lends itself to casual dress. Spending time outdoors is central to Southern California living. And often that means shorts, trousers, sport shoes, and, yes, even flip-flops.

Note that business attire is alive, well and extremely appropriate. Books and articles abound on how to dress for professional roles, meetings, conferences, interviews and more. Dress etiquette has not died; it just is tailored to specific environments and occasions.

Although there are generational differences in what is considered proper etiquette, there is some consensus on good interviewing behaviors that have been consistent over time. That includes dress, eating style and conversation.

A university newspaper recently published an article addressing interview etiquette when it involves a meal. As I read the article I thought, “Doesn’t everyone know this? Aren’t these the rules we taught our children when they were 4 or 5 years old?”

Regardless of income, background and grades, there is obviously a need for etiquette coaching for many soon-to-graduate young adults.

These suggestions are based on the article. Consider sharing them with your grandson.

Tips on what not to do:

  • Don’t order the most expensive item on the menu.
  • Don’t begin eating before anyone else.
  • Don’t chew with your mouth open.
  • Don’t chew ice or make a slurping sound with a straw.
  • Don’t pick your teeth.
  • Don’t make, or take, a call on your phone or text a message.
  • Don’t comb your hair at the table; for women, don’t apply lipstick or gloss.
  • Don’t ask for a doggie bag.
  • Don’t wear sunglasses at the table.

Certain etiquette is expected before, during and after the meal.

Prior to the meal: Arrive at the restaurant 10 to 15 minutes early. When seated, place your napkin on your lap; do not place it on the table until you are ready to leave. Don’t slouch – sit up and keep your elbows off the table. Good posture is professional and conveys confidence.

Ordering the meal: If unsure about the price of a dish, ask your host for recommendations. Avoid choosing messy food and food that causes bad breath.

During the meal: Be a good listener and don’t look around the room. Take small bites. Use the fork closest to your plate for the entree and don’t talk with your mouth full. Be positive and upbeat but not boisterous. When wanting the server’s attention, do not snap your fingers.

After the meal: You are the guest, so your interviewer will pay the bill. Remember to say thank you. Find out about the next steps in the hiring process and send a thank-you note to your host.

And finally, a few socializing tips:

  • Have a firm handshake but not a menacing grip.
  • Don’t try too hard to impress.
  • Use formal greetings such as Mr. or Ms., using first names only with permission.
  • Be prepared to discuss noncontroversial subjects if there is a lull in the conversation.

I recall reading an article written by an etiquette coach, directed toward Silicon Valley’s young computer geniuses known for eating pizza on paper plates at 2 a.m. The coach wanted to prepare them for interviews with venture capitalists from New York who were interested in investing in their creations.

A memorable part of her advice: Never eat peas with your knife.

One may wonder why such coaching is necessary for our best and brightest young adults, whose families are spending $40,000 to $250,000 on their child’s education.

Here are some possible reasons:

Many families no longer eat together so there is minimal opportunity to encourage or practice good manners. We often are in a rush with little time for social niceties. Heads are often down, looking at the computer, iPhone, BlackBerry, iPad and other electronics. Communication with eye contact is not necessary to get a date, break up, borrow notes or organize a party.

We are very plugged in, which may diminish opportunities to observe or practice good face-to-face manners.

Hopefully these tips are helpful. You might approach the conversation with your grandson with a bit of humor and offer these tips with an introduction such as, “I am sure you know this but let’s just talk about it for fun.”

Thank you for sharing your concern and taking on the role of a grandma coach. It’s an important role in helping our beloved grandchildren take advantage of career opportunities.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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