If you meet me in a business context, you’re probably going to see a white cotton shirt and a red tie very much like this.
I think I still have one blue dress shirt somewhere, but the vast majority of the shirts I own are white. (I order mine from Nordstrom. When I can afford it one day, I’ll go back to having them custom-tailored.) I have about 15 ties and they are all some form of red. In a normal setting, I’ll be wearing black pants made of a natural material, probably wool, and very traditional Allen Edmonds dress shoes.
Why? Did I spontaneously decide as a child that I have a thing for white shirts? Do I have a fetish for red pieces of silk tied around my neck in a symmetrical knot? Why would I do this?
The people who meet me might not consciously notice — and they might not even like to dress this way themselves — but they unconsciously know what it means. It means, “I’m a professional and you can trust me.”
We send such signals to each other all the time, whether we realize it or not. The more you examine your life, the more you’ll find examples of things you do for “signaling” than you realized possible.
Economists created the term signaling in this context, because they needed a way to explain why we do some of the inexplicable things we do. They realized that a lot of what we do has nothing to do with the stated purpose of the activity. We’re really doing things to send signals to others.
I grew up in a family where it was just assumed we would all go to college. If you had asked me back then why we’d spend four years becoming college-educated, I would have explained that it’s so we could learn the things we needed to do our jobs well. And if we had discussed graduate degrees, I would have explained that those additional years of study taught us additional knowledge that allowed us to do more valuable work.
Today, I know better. I didn’t go to college to learn anything. People in many technical fields do indeed learn things that make them qualified for their jobs, but for most of us, college study simply sends a signal to others that we are the sort of people who go to college.
Let’s say that Harvard University — or the prestigious school of your choice — gave you an option. If you chose the first option, you could spend four years going to as many Harvard classes as you could possibly fit in — learning as much as you could from them — without paying a nickel, but you would get no degree or certificate or documentation of any kind. If you chose the second option, Harvard would give you a complete, legitimate degree of your choosing right now, without you having to attend a single class.
Which would you choose?
I you honestly believe college is about learning, you should argue for the first option. Right? If knowledge is what you seek, what could be better than the chance to learn all you want from this top university?
But if you were pragmatic — and understand that a university degree is all about signaling — you would choose to take the degree. Because the real value of a Harvard degree is having a Harvard degree, not having learned whatever you might have learned by being there.
You send signals to others with the cars you drive and the homes where you choose to live. You send signals with your choice of where to live and where you send your children to school.
We’re not always conscious of these things. We try to convince ourselves that we’re just making rational and reasonable choices, but the truth is that we’re mostly just justifying the choices we’ve made for other reasons. We rarely understand that — but we instinctively know that other people will understand the signals that our choices send.
Until the last few years, I exclusively drove Acuras for something like 20 years. When the Legend was the top of the line, that’s what I drove. Then it was the Acura RL. I never bought a new model. (I’m too practical to waste that sort of money.)
I told myself that it was because I liked a comfortable, dependable car. That was even true, but it wasn’t the real reason. The truth is that I could have saved money and had a car that was just as nice by buying other brands. But by driving an Acura, I signaled to my clients, my friends and even to myself that I was the sort of person who drove an Acura.
I’ve become a lot more conscious over the last decade or so how much of what I do is intended to signal others (and myself). Becoming more conscious of it has allowed me to quit worrying about some things and accept other irrational things — such as my choice of business clothing — without being annoyed with myself.
Now, I’m aware of the ways I’m signaling others — and I’m also aware of the ways in which I choose people for various roles in my life based on the signals they send.
For instance, I can’t stand tattoos and piercings. (Well, ear piercings are in another category, but you probably know what I mean.) I have no rational reason to dislike tattoos so much. I’m very aware of the fact that they’re popular and that a lot of great people choose them today. But — for me — tattoos send signals, especially about certain roles in my life.
For instance, a woman who has tattoos and piercings sends a signal that she’s not my kind of woman. She might be brilliant and beautiful and have all sorts of other good qualities, but those choices signal — in an unconscious way — that she isn’t part of my cultural “tribe.”
My kind of woman looks a certain way, dresses a certain way, speaks in certain ways and presents herself to the world in certain ways. That doesn’t mean those particular things are superior. It just means that she is sending a signal that she is a particular thing — and that thing matches the cultural “fit” which I want.
The last five or six years have been difficult for me, because I haven’t been in the position I was financially 10 or 15 years ago. I haven’t been in the position to send all of those signals that I once took for granted.
After things got so bad for me, I had to drive a Ford for about a year. I was grateful to have it. It got me to work and to places I needed to go, but it didn’t send the signal that I was comfortable with — because I’m not the kind of guy who drives a Ford. There’s nothing wrong with that guy, but he’s not me.
Four years ago, I bought a cheap foreclosure in a lower middle-class part of town. Nothing about my home — the location or the house — sends the signal I was accustomed to sending. I’ve finally come to terms with that and I understand that my ego has to be set aside for now.
Pragmatically, where I’m living is brilliant. The mortgage is cheap. It allows me to save more money and prepare for the future. I’d never move a family in here, but it’s perfect for a dog, five cats and me. When I’m ready to move on, I’ll make a profit on the house or keep it as a rental. It doesn’t send the signal to the world that I want to send, but it’s the prudent choice — for now.
Understanding the signals we’re sending — and the signals we’re reading from others — can help us understand how to keep our behavior in line with our values. Being aware of it is allowing me to consciously choose which signals I really want to send — and can afford to send — and which are irrelevant to where I am in life.
Much of what we do — and much of the money we spend — is really for others, whether we know it or not. Starting to understand why we do such things — and figuring out which things really matter — can go a long way toward determining whether we’re making smart choices or not.
I don’t really have a thing for red ties. White cotton shirts aren’t what I wear around the house. (Actually, I have a couple dozen identical sets of black sweats and black t-shirts for weekends and evenings. I never have to worry about what matches. Seriously.) I’m not really in love with Allen Edmonds shoes.
But I know what those choices say about me. I think they send a signal that’s helpful right now. Until I decide I need to send a different signal instead, that’s the “uniform” you’ll be seeing.