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I am a fresh college graduate male and three quarters of my team is female. I come from a traditional and rural background. Their dress and wardrobe appears to be seductive and this makes me feel awkward.

I frequently find myself getting distracted by the way they are dressed and unable to mingle with them as a team member.

My goal is to behave professionally in this setting: interacting with my co-workers, not shunning them, without behaving awkwardly or inappropriately. How can I prevent myself from being distracted by others' appearances without avoiding my team?

276

I know how you feel; I came from a rural and traditional background as well and went through this several years ago. Here are a few things I wish someone had told me:

  1. These women are not dressing this way to distract you on purpose. Women dress the way they do for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with you.
  2. You will become desensitized over time. In 3 to 6 months you will find that the same outfits do not distract you as much and mingling will become much easier, so just try to be patient with yourself until then.

The important thing is to keep it respectful and professional at all times and you will get through this. Whatever you do, I would not say anything to anyone, especially your boss or the women involved. Revealing that you have a traditional background and are unaccustomed to something mainstream can only hurt you (c.f. the venom on this thread) and will do nothing to alleviate your problem.

  • 11
    If you can, I suggest talking to someone you know and trust well who is outside of your professional network, like your parents, a friend who's older than you, or a spiritual leader about the issue. They'll listen to you closely enough not to get on your case like we unfortunately did here, and they'll be able to give you the frank advice you need to hear. – Kevin Nov 30 '14 at 1:13
  • 14
    Spot on. It's annoying when people dress incongruously with how they want to be treated (POV-dependent). But it's a culture thing, and like all cultural differences, you adapt if you let yourself. And yes, never try to "fix" their dress...there's no way that will go well. – Paul Draper Dec 1 '14 at 8:37
  • 7
    @kevincline, whether the OP is from a jewish, muslim, hindu or christian background, there are likely plenty of leaders or cohorts within his religious/cultural group that are capable of counseling him about interaction with mainstream culture. This is a common problem that people who practice an orthodox religion deal with. – teego1967 Dec 1 '14 at 19:52
  • 9
    Off topic: As "cf." is an abbreviation for a single Latin word, confer, meaning "compare", it is written with a single dot. – David Conrad Dec 1 '14 at 22:41
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    @PaulDraper, dressing attractively is not incongruous with wanting to be treated like a professional in any way shape or form. And remember, for women of certain body types, everything they can possibly wear is considered sexy by someone. – HLGEM Dec 3 '14 at 20:52
127

I've not experienced a problem like this myself, but the fact the asker is trying to stop and finding it difficult does remind me of a surprising but well-established finding in psychology that the harder you try consciously to not to think about something, the more you end up thinking about it and the bigger a deal it becomes. I think this is part of the problem, and could explain why the asker is finding it harder to get over it than Ray did.

The classic experimental example is: if you tell half a group of people to imagine a polar bear (white bear), and half to not imagine a polar bear, the group consciously trying to not imagine the bear have the image of that bear closer to mind than the people who are imagining it. They recognise white bears faster than the other group, and they're more distracted by pictures of white bears than the other group.

It makes sense when you think about the effort involved in enforcing a mental taboo like this. You have to maintain a really strong representation of the thing you're supposed to not think about, so that you can check your thoughts against it.

It's likely that the harder the asker tries to not to notice his colleagues' dress, the more he notices it.


How to deal with this? I think this reinforces an important subtle detail in Ray's answer. Ray didn't get over this problem by trying consciously to not notice it any more - he got over it by focussing on other things like work objectives, (slowly) relaxing and just getting used to the fact that in this context, it's normal. Then he no longer noticed it.

Consciously fighting it will just lead to you thinking about it more, worrying about it more, fearing it more and as a result, noticing it more.

Humans are probably the most adaptable species on earth. We're very good at getting used to shifting norms - except for when we fixate on something and complicate it.

Let your brain do what it's good at, without getting in its way, and like for Ray, it'll quickly stop being distracting.


I've never had a specific problem like this, but we've all ended up in a situation where trying not to notice something you're supposed to ignore at the workplace has led to becoming awkwardly unable to think about anything else - and where the harder we fight it, the worse it gets. Some more common examples:

  • Trying to ignore a colleague's quirky habit, catch phrase or laugh that only you find annoying
  • Trying not to think about that scandalous rumour you heard about a colleague while discussing business with them
  • Trying not to notice a distracting blemish, spot, nose hair, bogey, stain, undone fly, obvious wig, mismatched socks, shirt tucked into underwear, unexpected tattoo, curious scar, etc etc while someone is giving an important talk

All these things get worse the more you fight them and the more you let them get to you.

I think the asker is basically experiencing this, but on an epic scale, all day, every day.

It won't stop until they relax, stop worrying, fighting and fearing it, and let their attention get taken by more important things until they get used to it.

You don't stop noticing a speaker's unusual accent by thinking "I must stop noticing this speaker's unusual accent". You stop it by thinking "This speaker's talking about [x]. That's relevant to my work" and keeping focus on the matter at hand. Same for any source of distraction.


If it's also hard to stop thinking about it because you're genuinely convinced their dress is "seductive", it might help to resolve this cultural misunderstanding:

  • The intentions certainly aren't seductive. Most people (male and female) avoid starting relationships or liasons in the workplace. They get very awkward very quickly. People (male and female) put effort into looking good at work because it's expected that ambitious professionals will "make an effort" to "create a good impression", by dressing smartly and reasonably fashionably.
  • It's possible one detail you're not used to is tight outfits that show the wearer's body shape. In Western business-wear, for both men and women, an exact fit is considered smart, and bagginess is considered sloppy. The ultimate in smartness is a tailored suit (or a dress) that perfectly fits your exact measurements. If someone wears an outfit that is a very sharp fit, it's not their body shape they're showing off, but rather it's about professional qualities like smartness, neatness, precision, control.
  • People also want to feel comfortable - and this also includes feeling like whatever level of femininity or masculinity the person is most comfortable at. Maybe the details you find distracting are actually just flourishes chosen to make a smart but bland outfit feel more feminine.

And please please please don't do what some people have suggested, which is to avoid talking to or working with the people you personally find distracting.

First, it's unfair on them, and unfair on your employers, if you're not communicating with relevant or important people to your projects for personal reasons.

Second, for any personal problem, hiding from it or bottling it up lets it fester and feel so, so, so much worse than it needs to be.

You're a professional. You can get your focus back on the job when, say, hunger or tedium distract you, and you can get your focus back when other curiosities (like interesting SE questions) distract you. You can do the same with this, too.

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    +1. What an excellent, thorough, and respectful answer; I hope we start seeing more answers from you! – ruakh Nov 29 '14 at 0:11
  • The classic example is with an elephant, but of course it works with anything. (Also, "liaisons" is spelled with two i's.) – David Conrad Dec 1 '14 at 22:47
  • "The intentions certainly aren't seductive. Most people (male and female) avoid starting relationships or liasons in the workplace." - well, some people come to work dressed as if they were going to disco, so at least in some environment it isn't true, but generally, it's a great answer. – user1023 Dec 2 '14 at 10:52
  • Note: I've edited the question to address concerns about specificity and objectivity. You may wish to revise your answer slightly. Ref: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/2993/… – Shog9 Dec 3 '14 at 19:13
  • "First, it's unfair on them, and unfair on your employers". And how about unfair to yourself? You're denying yourself potention (work) relations which could benefit you. One of those people might be a great collegae for you. One of those people might say to the boss "Hey, X did a great job on this", resulting in whatever situation. – Martijn Aug 4 '15 at 7:39
9

You essentially have two options:

  • You can live with the discomfort
  • You can adapt to the working environment

However, while you specifically ask for ways to change the situation without any external change, it's worth looking at two other options:

  • You can ask for a change in the dress code
  • You can find a better working environment

Live with the discomfort

Right now you are already living with the discomfort. You know how that feels, and if you aren't going to change yourself, your environment, or your job, then this is the default. You can continue doing this - perhaps the job is particularly useful from a career perspective, or the networking connections you're building are valuable, or you expect to change jobs in a short period of time. This isn't a bad choice, particularly in the short term.

Adapt to the working environment

As others have pointed out, changing your personal values and standard is an option. By immersing yourself in this new environment, and desensitizing yourself over time you should be able to largely adjust to the point where this no longer distracts you. Humans are very malleable and adaptive, so if your concerns are cultural, and you don't mind changing, then this is likely the easiest path. Note that having particularly low standards will allow you to work in many environments, while demanding high standards of those around you will limit your options for employment in the future.

Ask for a change in the dress code

One option you have is to find out if there are ways to change your work environment to offer fewer distractions. If a co-worker was playing music too loudly, or swearing loudly and often, and these things pulled you out of your zone, preventing you from working as well as you'd like, it's easy to have a discussion with HR or your supervisor to see if these distractions can be mitigated. Rather than nebulously saying, "Their dress and wardrobe appears to be seductive" you should focus on specific business outcomes that professional attire would achieve. For instance, one article points out:

Nearly one-quarter of respondents said the dress codes in their workplaces are too lenient. Readers regaled us with horror stories involving low cut tops, ripped jeans, sandals and exposed tattoos and body piercings they deemed inappropriate for an office setting.

One respondent issued a cautionary tale and said "We let one instance go and then before we knew it, everyone was in flip-flops and stretch pants." And he wasn't alone in seeking strict wardrobe rules.

"I believe people who dress professionally tend to be more professional on the job," he said. "Dressing in jeans and a T-shirt does not exude professionalism, especially when you are seated in close proximity to an executive dressed in a suit."

Recognize that you are likely not alone in this feeling. Whether you are from a rural area with conservative values, or from a beachside town with bare skin everywhere, you might still feel uncomfortable with aspects of others' dress and style in the context of your work environment. Rather than chalking it up to personal taste and ignoring your own feelings, or allowing others to dissuade you from voicing your feelings and discomfort, it's healthy and worthwhile to explore these things openly. You may be surprised to find that others - even those who you feel are dressing inappropriately - agree with you and would prefer a more professional environment. Having an unrestricted environment may lead to lower morale and higher stress, lowering productivity for workers. It's in your company's best interest to provide an environment free of distractions, but they can only do that if they know about the distractions.

How you approach encouraging a company to adopt a dress code policy, or strengthen an existing policy, however, is a much more complex question. Feel free to ask it if you want to explore that option.

Find a better working environment

Lastly, it might be easier for you to simply find a job that is more compatible with your needs. You're spending a significant amount of your lifetime at your job. There are many, many companies that have professional business attire standards, and while you're limiting your options by making that a requirement in your job search, the positions exist. Keep this job while you look, take your time, and you will eventually find a position that better matches your need, and provides fewer onsite distractions, allowing you to work more comfortably and productively.

4

Before figuring out how to handle this, you need to determine if the way the women are dressed is appropriate according to the dress code of the company.

If they are dressing in a manner the company considers to be appropriate, then you need to either adapt or go to a different company. The best way to adapt is to concentrate on something other than their clothing. First, make sure that you are looking at the the women's faces when you talk to them and not at their clothing. Mentally categorize them as "off limits" like your sister, mother or aunts. Use the way you would handle talking to a female relative (as far as body language not necessarily content) as a guide for how you talk to your female co-workers. If you are talking to your mom, you don't particularly notice her clothing, do you? If you put female coworkers in the same mental category as relatives, they will be less distracting.

Next concentrate on the business aspects of what you need to talk to them about. If you are in a meeting and get distracted, start taking written notes and then you will be looking at the paper and not them. If you feel more comfortable approacthing them through electronic means, then do so until you are less distractable. The one thing that it would be unprofessional to do would be to try to not interact with them when you need to. That casues work stoppages and misunderstanding and rework and will justifiably cause them to be angry with you if you don't tell them something they need to know because you don't want to talk to them.

Don't make them uncomfortable in return as that will make the whole situation worse. So no staring or suggestive comments or asking out on dates or trying to touch.

Now the other case is if they don't meet the current dress standards of the organization. In this case ask each individual woman to please wear less suggestive clothing per the employee dress code. Be very neutral in your request, but do tell them the dress is making you uncomfortable. If they comply, then no problem. But remember sexual harrassment can go two ways. An aggressive woman might decide to make you even more uncomfortable. If they are not dressing according to the company standards and they refuse to change when asked politely, this is harrassment.

In this case talk to your boss about how to handle it. Be careful about this though even if they are violating the dress code. If no one else is uncomfortable, there may be an unwritten code where attractive women don't have to follow the rules but unattractive ones do. I have seen that at several places where I have worked. To bring it up might label you as a prude. So think about how other people seem to be thinking about this and maybe talk it over with a mentor if you have one at work. Decide if being thought of as prudish will affect your ability to do your job. Not knowing the personalities of the people you work with, it is hard to say if it is worth it to bring up even if the women are violating the dress code. Just be aware that there could be negative consequences for you in how you are perceived by your male and female co-workers if you do decide to bring it up.

  • If your mom is wearing something that draws your attention, it could still be tough. The issue is that we have multiple "goals" in our conscious and unconscious minds, raising the possibility of conflict among them. That's life! – user37746 Jan 15 '16 at 0:17
  • For what it's worth, looking people in the eyes will garner a more positive response no matter what someone is wearing and is pretty much always recommended. And your point about pretty girls not needing to follow the rules is another harsh reality, although in my experience it applies to guys who hit the gym as well. – corsiKa Jun 9 '16 at 15:19
4

One specific thing that I think hasn't been addressed sufficiently is the likely difference in socialization between genders in a rural/traditional background versus an urban/modern culture. This is not even purely a "rural" issue - in the US, at least, it is very common for men to 'hang out' with men and women to 'hang out' with women and not intermingle until/unless finding a mate.

This can lead to some of the problems listed in the question, namely not feeling comfortable interacting with women who are dressed (by his definition) immodestly, because you're not comfortable interacting with women socially in general (and the same goes for women with men). Particularly for men, though, depending on your upbringing, men may be used to interacting with women solely in a sexualized setting - either as dates, or potential partners, or on television/movies.

This can lead to some difficulty in a mixed workplace, because you need to interact with women in a non-sexualized environment, but you're not used to doing so. You need to train yourself to interact with women in a way where your brain is not considering their potential as a partner. If you can manage that, then their dress shouldn't be too much of an issue.

As such, my suggestion would be to try and befriend a few women outside of work, who you do not consider potential partners. Hang out with your sister or female cousin and their friends, and talk to your relative ahead of time to make sure they know there aren't any expectations of partnering. If that's not an option, then go hang out in a social environment where both genders will be present - and interact with people there. Even if you don't drink (due to religion or just desire to avoid being crazy like I do), you can have a soda or carbonated water (something that's not obviously nonalcoholic is best) - just spend the time around people, and you'll get more comfortable.

At the end of the day, though, don't be too worried if the feeling never totally goes away. Everyone has days where they are a little distracted and their eyes start slipping (women included), and as long as you are professional in general and don't make a big deal out of it, neither will anyone else. When you internalize that, I suspect some of the internal discomfort will also go away (because it may come from a sense of shame and of guilt, and concern about being caught out).

-1

Get it out of the way so you don't have to dwell on it. Confronting what you are uncomfortable about is really the only way to overcome the issues you are feeling.

There are several strategies you can try, depending on the situation and your knowledge or relationship with those people:

  • Talk to them about the dress and therefore raise it in a way that helps you understand more about their need to be dressed like that (e.g. you always seem to dress very well, where do you shop for your clothes?).
  • Talk to them about fashion rather than the dress itself, so that you can gradually shift your thinking from thinking about it in a physical sense (how it covers their body) to a more social sense (trends and ideas in fashion).
  • Reflect it back on you rather than them (e.g. ask for some fashion tips so that they can still talk about the dress but turn that focus onto something easier to deal with for you (like your own dress sense).

protected by Community Nov 27 '14 at 19:18

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