When in Rome…should you ever dress as the Romans do?

The traditional adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” needs a caveat – only sometimes.

And when in New Delhi, should you wear a sari or kurta pyjama? Canadian Prime Minister was somewhat ill advised on his trip to India earlier this year. When he and his family first landed, they were wearing Western dress but greeted the crowd of well-wishers with a traditional ‘Namaste’, the pressing together of the palms and a nod of the head. A few days later, much to the confusion of on-lookers, they were decked out from head to toe in not just traditional Indian garb but extremely fancy Indian garb, of the type that Indians would wear to weddings. On many occasions, they were dressed far more lavishly than their Indian hosts and their dress was seen by most reporters as what the Canadian newspaper The Star described as “an over-the-top fashion faux-pas”.

Prime Minister Trudeau was doubtless trying to do the ‘right thing’ and show respect for Indian cultural differences, but doing this can sometimes sail dangerously close to being patronizing. On occasions like this, a little can actually go further than a lot. The family’s ‘Namaste’ gesture, for example, set a lovely warm tone and wearing just a few elements of local dress – a man or woman’s dutappa (scarf) for example, some local shoes or some gold bangles – would, in my opinion, been more respectful. Ironically, one of the key tenets of Trudeau’s multi-cultural policy is that immigrants do not abandon their own cultural blueprint, they simply combine it with the values of their new homeland.

You are what you eat wear

Many volumes have been penned on what your appearance says about you to others, but this minefield becomes even more challenging to negotiate when we put local dress into the mix.

Sometimes, unfortunately, your preferred dress style does not translate across cultures and what you view as both comfortable and professional, or perhaps a little arty or creative, is met with some disapproving looks. The Australian and British men’s fashion for pairing colored and patterned shirts with a tie of contrasting color or pattern, for example, is far too vibrant for many Asian business communities, as are the brightly colored socks often worn. Business men in Asia will typically favor a much more modest look for the office, such as a white shirt and a plain tie, worn with a black suit.

In collective societies such as China and Japan, dressing the same way as everyone else is another way of not standing out from the crowd, although young Japanese people wear some of the most eccentric and bizarre clothes in the world – perhaps getting it out of their system before they join the ranks of ‘salary men’ in their black suits.

Remember Erin Brockovich?

A common issue among Western women going to work in more male-dominated cultures is that they may not have the freedom to dress as they have always done. The film Erin Brockovich sent a clear statement to American audiences about a woman’s right to dress as she chose in the workplace, but in cultures used to women dressing more modestly, this will not benefit you in the long term. You may be within your rights, but you will still be made to feel uncomfortable.

A few years ago, I trained a young Australian woman called Rachel, who was moving to Kuala Lumpur with her job. When we met, she was wearing a striking dress in a hot pink. It fitted closely around her waist and hips, with a deep V at the front. Rachel knew she looked sensational, but what she didn’t know was that to her new Malaysian clients, she would be seen to be offering a lot more than just IT solutions!

At her cultural briefing, I advised her that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and that while not fundamentalist, most women there wore at least a hajib and many wore a burqa or a niqab. We also discussed the fact that business was very male dominated, that a lack of modesty was seen as a lack of morality and so on, but she failed to see the connection with how she herself was dressed. She was quite certain that with her product knowledge and experience it would not be a problem. Finally, I had to be quite blunt with her and advise that not only would she struggle to be taken seriously as a business development manager, but she may get frequent requests for additional ‘business services’ which she had no interest in offering. (Interestingly, I note that a lot of young Malaysian and Indonesian women will happily wear short skirts, but will never reveal their cleavage, so it is not as straightforward as simply advising ‘dress more modestly’.)

Do casual clothes imply an unprofessional attitude?

‘Casual Clothes Day’ has been widely adopted by Australian and other Western workplaces, but it is not common in Asia or in many European countries and certainly it is something that one must be aware of when working with clients from other cultures, but meeting on your home ground. In Japan, your professional integrity and worth would almost certainly be questioned if you do not ‘look the part’ to them. Chinese clients will also expect their providers to dress very smartly and will not be impressed by the wearing of ‘casual clothes’. In some Australian offices, ‘casual clothes’ can simply mean not wearing a tie for men or not wearing heels for women, but in many others – and particularly in the summer – it seems to be code for a much more dress-down approach. This is often a source of great confusion for expatriates and several European clients have commented that they find the outfits worn on casual clothes day to lack professionalism and be more suited to going to a beach or nightclub.

Simon was caught out in nearby Indonesia; as a man he was invited by his hosts to attend the local mosque, but in taking his shoes off at the door, he revealed not just that his toes were showing through the end but also that he was not wearing a matching pair of socks. Always slightly scruffy anyway, he said he felt very embarrassed amongst so much pressed white linen.

In most of the world’s cultures, your clothing sends a message about both how highly you value yourself and the respect you have for those around you. Responses to people dressing ‘differently’ are deeply ingrained and may surprise you sometimes. In Australian writer Sarah Turnbull’s book Almost French, she recounts how horrified her French boyfriend was at her attempt to go to the bakery in her tracksuit one early Sunday morning. While in her view it didn’t matter what she looked like, in his view it was insulting to the baker not to make more effort to look nice in his shop, when he had gone to such efforts to bake delicious bread!

My English colleague Sylvie remembers turning up to see the company doctor in Milan and being stunned to see her wearing a leather skirt and fishnet stockings. Clearly from the doctor’s point of view, being a doctor didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy being female too, but Sylvie was ashamed to admit that her default reaction was firstly to assume that the doctor was actually the receptionist and then to question her professionalism.

Whether you are a business traveler or an expatriate, you need to be aware of the many rules which determine whether we look the part or not. My advice to both men and women is always to err on the side of caution; dress more simply than more flamboyantly and opt for overdressed rather than underdressed. It is far better for people to remember you for what you said rather than for what you looked like.

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About the Author

Patti McCarthy

Patti McCarthy

Patti McCarthy is an expatriate & life coach who helps migrants and expatriates to not just survive the experience but actively enjoy it. For further information please visit www.culturalchemistry.com.au.

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