Expat Diaries: Knowing the [Dress] Code

All Business

Expat diaries is a weekly feature where I talk about my experiences as an American expat living and working in London. I discuss cultural nuances, a few tips for would-be expats to the UK, and sometimes throw in a bit of pop culture, too. Have any questions, or topics you’d like covered in this feature? Then get in touch!

I only had a short weekend to adjust to living in Britain before heading off to my first day of work in the UK. I had the usual first-day jitters: would I be able to navigate the public transport to get there? Do I know which stop is mine? Would I get on with my new colleagues?

One of the jitters I didn’t expect was about the dress code. I work for a large Silicon Valley tech company, and in Silicon Valley, the dress code tends to be reasonably casual; if the dress code isn’t casual, it’s business casual. For my first day on the job in the UK, I showed up dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans. What I didn’t expect was that most of the people in my new office would be dressed in proper business attire; suits and ties for the gents, skirts and jackets for the ladies.

At first, I wondered if I stumbled into the wrong office. When people dressed in suits in Silicon Valley, it generally meant one thing: they were interviewing for another job. I instantly started feeling a bit out of place. Then I questioned who was actually out of place? Was I out place because I didn’t conform to the British work dress code, or were my co-workers out of place for not embracing Silicon Valley standards for work wear?

A close colleague clued me in a few weeks later. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit fever pitch in the year leading up to my move abroad. There were rumblings of potential lay offs at companies across the globe, and unfortunately, my company was one of those threatening layoffs. Up to the start of the GFC, a high percentage of my company’s workforce in the UK dressed a bit more casually, but once rumors of layoffs spread, people started dressing smartly when they showed up to the office; a sign, apparently, of taking one’s job more seriously.

There are fewer of us data-monkey/programming types lurking the hallways here in the UK than there are in Silicon Valley. For us, the dress code is less important; we sit in front of our laptops, toiling away, lucky if we even talk to our co-workers. These days, I spend 99 percent of my time working from home, and 95 percent of that time working in my pajamas. Does that mean I’m any worse at my job than those showing up to the office in their suits and ties? To be fair, many of the job roles in my office are customer-facing, so it makes sense for those employees to dress smartly regardless of the GFC.

Since I’ve been working in the UK, I’ve had an opportunity to work from my company’s offices in Brussels and Amsterdam. In Brussels, I found more people embraced Silicon Valley culture and dressed more business casually. Amsterdam, however, seemed to fully embrace Silicon Valley culture, and most people were dressed quite casually. But was that a reflection of the corporate culture, or more of a reflection of the local culture?

What I’ve learned since my first day working in the UK is that it’s important to take a bit of time stop and understand your surroundings. When you’re traveling, take some time to understand the cultural norms for your destination. Many people say they want to get the full cultural experience, but then go on to stick out as the token American tourist in ill-fitting jeans and white sneakers. Perhaps to truly embrace a culture and experience things like a local, you have to look more carefully not only at what the locals are doing, but how they’re dressing. If you’re traveling on business, do the locals dress up for the office, or are they a bit more casual? Will it bother you if you don’t conform, or are you trying to share a bit of your culture with your colleagues or customers?

Over time, I’ve made a bit more of an effort when going to the office. I may not wear jeans and a t-shirt, but I still don’t pull out my skirt and jacket. I have absolutely no interest in giving up who I am as an American, or as an employee for Silicon Valley, but at the same time, there have been plenty of clothes added to my wardrobe which reflect my time and influences in London.

Ultimately, traveling, working, and moving abroad is what you make of it. Don’t be afraid to express your individuality where ever you go in the world, but be respectful of the people you meet, and if you truly want to experience life as a local, why not try out the local dress code?