In defense of formality

I had Thai dinner with fellow BCC blogger John F. last week in London. Dazzled as I was by his smart pinstripe suit, beautifully ironed shirt, and swish shoes, I made the following observation, which I now share with you:

Formal is good.

This is somewhat of a revelation to me, and it’s one I am only slowly coming to accept. I have usually eschewed formality: I prefer to dress drown and try hard to strike easy, informal relationships with people. At church, I have often found the formality which seems to drive Mormon interactions largely unnecessary. I feel sorry for bishops whose personality is squashed under the weight of nomenclature — no longer “Chris,” or “Bob,” but now Bishop.  As an elders quorum president I had a counsellor who insisted on calling me “President,” even though I told him I preferred my first name. It annoyed me.

John’s crisp collars confirmed what I had been suspecting, however. Formality — and its cousins etiquette and sartorial appropriateness — is often crucial for harmonious exchanges with other humans. This has all been confirmed by my day job as a teacher of boys.

You might have thought that 500 year-old private schools with ivy on their redbrick walls breed an easily maintained formality. It is certainly true that such schools expect standards of comportment and dress which would look out of place elsewhere. But teenage boys are teenage boys the world over, and need constant and strict reminders to dress and act properly. Even in posh schools.

Here’s the thing which confirms my thesis about formality: those boys whose suits are the cleanest, whose ties are done up to the collar, whose shirts are tucked in, and who sprinkle their interactions with liberal doses of “sirs,” “pleases,” and “thank-yous,” are also the boys whose behaviour is most conducive to learning and achievement. Thus, if you want to inspire these boys to excellence, you do not begin by honing your rhetoric and pedagogy. Instead, you insist on a neat and tidy appearance, firm hand shakes, eye contact, and polite language. You have them stand when another adult enters the room and you punish them for slight misdemeanours (“I want 500 words by tomorrow as to why chewing gum in class is unacceptable”). You do not want these boys to like you — you want them to respect you and to work for you. Formality is your friend.

This may also be why the Headmaster — that God of the school — sets an example in the little things: smart suit, waistcoat, cuff-links, handwritten letters in ink, etc.

Certainly one can bleat on about excessive formality and rigidity — after all, did not Robin Williams inspire his students by having them tear pages from their poetry books? But that’s not informality — note that he didn’t tell the boys to call him by his first name, nor would he have countenanced poor behaviour in class. Precisely because these boundaries were maintained, there was room for exploration.

(Of course, Dead Poets Society isn’t real, so feel free to ignore the preceding paragraph.)

So that’s the lesson of the Fowles pinstripes, the formal and necessary uniform of the City of London.


  1. Norbert says:

    I agree that formality is your friend when ‘you’ are an authority figure.

  2. Let’s hang out at Angel any time.

    Great post — I have made similar observations that in certain contexts certain formality is conducive to creating an environment of learning, in the context of a school, or an environment of productivity in some other contexts. There is a difference between such formality and vanity though, which I think the City’s pinstripes probably cross.

    But look no further than Oxford for some delightful formality that really is part of the atmosphere — and that is perfectly appropriate.

  3. Congratulations, Ronan. You have learned one of the secrets of adulthood.

  4. …those boys whose suits are the cleanest, whose ties are done up to the collar, whose shirts and tucked in, and who sprinkle their interactions with liberal doses of “sirs,” “pleases,” and “thank-yous,” are also the boys whose behaviour is most conducive to learning and achievement….

    I’m going to propose that this might be a murkier causal inference than the post suggests. Do formal clothes and attention to decorum cause good behavior — or does the disposition that causes good behavior also cause extra attention to clothes? Might families that focus on clothing also differ in other causally relevant ways from less formal families, as well?

    My guess is that manipulating the degree of formality is probably unlikely to dramatically affect the degree of resulting learning or productivity. Some of the most effective educational settings on Earth are also hugely informal, as have been some of the most productive workplaces. Once you account for self-selection, my guess is the relationship is taken care of…

  5. Ronan, I think the experience you have had in teaching at a boys’ school is that you have seen the connection between formality and discipline. The discipline becomes essential in the classroom setting so that the group is not deterred from learning by the misbehavior of some of the boys. Strictness in the small formalities hedges against bigger discipline issues and thus helps create this environment. This also applies to the respect issue you mentioned and why it’s a good idea for you to address the Headmaster as Headmaster rather than by his or her first name when in front of the students, etc.

    Formality in these contexts also ties in with tradition. Tradition and culture can be inseparately connected and cultural immersion is often part of the educational process.

  6. Sometimes nonconformity is over-rated. There is real value in keeping appearances and all those social graces. I don’t think they should supersede the more important elements, but as my grandpa used to say, “Manners maketh the man.”

  7. I appreciate formal dress and good grooming. It’s standard protocol in the business profession I work in.

    But I’m torn about our emphasis on dress and grooming in the church. I like how we dress up for church (against the trend of many other Christian denominations). It makes church special, and encourages respect for the buildings and services there.

    But I’m afraid that this can potentially lead to further compartmentalization of our lives: church is where we dress a certain way and act a certain way, and then we go home and take off our dressy clothes and act differently.

    Also, I’m afraid that certain standards of dress and grooming can create unecessary barriers to entry into the church.

    I had a bishop who strongly encouraged us to put on a white shirt and tie whenever performing a priesthood ordinance — even if we were giving a blessing to a sick child in the middle of the night. But I personally think that the beauty of the Mormon priesthood is that you can hold it and exercise it all the time. It is a part of your secular world. You don’t have to wear certain clothes and go to a certain place to commune with God and call upon his power.

    Formal dress can symbolize respect, reverence, and inward goodness and cleanliness. But it’s a problem if we start treating dress and grooming as THE important virtues, rather than just outward symbols of more important virtues.

    So I’m in favor of formal dress standards in the church to the extent that it encourages respect and reverence and good clean behavior. But I’m opposed to an inordinate emphasis on appearance that can lead us to misjudge what’s really important in others — and perhaps misjudge ourselves too.

  8. esodhiambo says:

    This is really about Michelle Obama’s sleevelessness, isn’t it?

  9. Last October my office moved adjacent to the factory floor, along with new responsibilities in my role as a purchasing analyst supporting the repair and overhaul group. My manager informed me that I should wear clothing I didn’t mind getting dirty. Translation: Quit wearing business casual and start wearing jeans and t-shirts to work.

    At first, I hated showing up to work in what I regarded as shabby dress. Now, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  10. esodhiambo says:

    I learned this, not when I taught boys, but when I taught “men,” and a few women, in the MTC. You remember how it was–some bristle against the missionary uniform in the beginning when they think they are just going to be sitting in a classroom all day for 2 months. But without fail, ALL of my missionaries who got in trouble did so only after they had changed into P-day clothes. Had they stayed in their suits, they wouldn’t have acted so foolishly.

  11. StillConfused says:

    I do find that I am more productive at work when I am dressed nicer. Not sure if it is psychological or what

  12. hmmm. I think there are the “boys whose suits are the cleanest, whose ties are done up to the collar, whose shirts and tucked in, and who sprinkle their interactions with liberal doses of “sirs,” “pleases,” and “thank-yous,” [who are] are also the boys whose behaviour is most conducive to learning and achievement.”

    But then there are the non-conformist, sloppy ones, who dye their hair blue and won’t wear ties, and are creative and poetic and passionate. I would say that the world needs both.

    Or maybe I just haven’t grown up all the way, quite yet.

  13. Re 9, Brian Duffin: “Translation: Quit wearing business casual and start wearing jeans and t-shirts to work.”

    As I sit here in my buttoned-down shirt, tie, and dress slacks, I can’t tell you how envious I am of your new dress code. Ugh.

  14. Norbert,
    Yes, formality is the friend of authority, but it’s also true that formality also benefits the boys: the most “formal” ones do better, 9 times out of 10 (to answer Bored’s point).

    Which brings us to causal relationships… First of all, JNS gets 500 lines for disagreeing with sir. In my experience, all this formality keeps boys on the straight and narrow. JNS suggests that good boys already were prone to formality; in response I can only cite the steadying influence a request to do-up a tie can have on a boy prone to misbehaviour.

    As for church formality: this is not a pro-white shirt post. I would have a mental syntax error if I tried to write such a thing.

    Re: Mrs Obama. It’s not the lack of sleeves, IT’S THE PUTTING YOUR ARM AROUND THE QUEEN!!!

  15. I hope this was written jest. Otherwise it is Elitism. Most people do not wear at tie to work. Most people do not get a costly formal education. Most people do not see good “manners” as a way to get ahead. To say this is what makes a man/woman “excellent”, is rubbish.

  16. I jest not. I see nothing elitist about good manners.

  17. Mark Brown says:


    Bill Gates disagrees with you. Redmond’s evil empire cultivates an environment of informality and it is arguably the most successful organization on earth.

  18. I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t mind the formality at church. I think it adds to the reverence, and that many of us dress differently for church than we do for work the rest of the week.

    I can’t discount the cultural factors, though. Here on the west coast, business dress has been more relaxed for some time, but our east coast counterparts are more formal. I assume that the culture in that “small island off the coast of Europe” is given to more formality (quoting the press guide given to some of the press members from the US covering the G20 – sorry, Ronan).

    My normal work attire these days is clean jeans, oxford shirt, leather shoes, unless I am visiting a customer site, and then it’s khaki’s or dress slacks and shoes. However, I work with a guy that wears basketball shorts and t-shirts to work year round. He’s good, but he almost never visits his customers. That’s a bit too casual for me.

  19. It’s a misconception to think that Brits are naturally more formal. I think we’re largely a scruffy, uncouth breed. I think formality is useful precisely because of this.

    I should add that formality is good depending on the desired outcome. I need formal, polite, elegant, smartly dressed boys in order to do my job. Precisely because any setting in which you are outnumbered by teenage boys 15:1 is ripe for chaos, these things are vital.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Bob, you are just being silly. Your statement “Most people do not see good “manners” as a way to get ahead” is patently false. Everyone recognizes that familiarity and conformity with social rules is not only a way to get ahead but is quite possibly the way. It is frustrating for me to hear people speak of their informal environments, because all they are describing is how the uniforms vary in their neck of the woods. Face it, people: you dress the way your social milieu demands.

    Ronan, as to your point about the effects of proper attire, well, Sister Beck was way ahead of you.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    PS several things make me feel immense jealousy in this thread:

    1. Thai food
    2. in London
    3. British tailoring (though my Thai-made bespoke works fine, thanks)
    4. Fowles + Ronan.

    But don’t worry, you two — I believe I can come up with an activity over here that will make you mad with jealousy.

  22. >Face it, people: you dress the way your social milieu demands.

    Excellent point. English private schools demand smart dress and good manners, thus these standards need to be maintained in order to maintain discipline and focus.

  23. Norbert says:

    the most “formal” ones do better, 9 times out of 10 (to answer Bored’s point).

    I would argue that the most formal ones are the one’s most accustomed to pleasing authorities — knowing their place, as it were.

  24. Ronan (#14) said “As for church formality: this is not a pro-white shirt post. I would have a mental syntax error if I tried to write such a thing.”

    Ah, very good, then don’t take my preaching in #7 personally.

  25. I loved this post, Ronan. And I agree with you –formality and good manners are actually quite nice…

    P.S. The Thai food in London is excellent (best Tom Ka Gai I’ve had, yet!), but the Indian food is even better…sigh…

  26. Norbert says:

    Subtract an apostrophe from that, please.

  27. Naismith says:

    You don’t KNOW that the shirt was ironed. You only know the collar was crisp. A lot of permanent press shirts with stays look fine without ironing.

    And since ironing is a total waste of time, and thus immoral in my book, please don’t try to claim that it is somehow necessary to appear neat.

  28. Randall says:

    I’m ambivalent about formality. Jesus seemed to be also. On the one hand, he stated:

    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness (Matthew 23: 27). He offered little respect or deference to the Roman and Jewish leaders of his time.

    On the other hand, he seemed to insist on some of the formal symbolism and ritual of his time (i.e. washing feet, celebrating high holidays, respecting the temple, triumphal entries).

    In my own life, I will only wear a tie to church if I’m giving a talk or performing an ordinance. However, I’m the only faculty member at my residency program who chooses to wear a suit coat during educational presentations.

    I am very willing to be gracious, well-mannered, and respectful to others, but am less excited to wear a uniform.

  29. Steve Evans says:

    Naismith, quite right. Knowing Fowles, I suspect he was simply wearing a tuxedo t-shirt.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Randall, I am not sure your comment is consistent with itself:

    “I’m ambivalent about formality.”

    “I will only wear a tie to church if I’m giving a talk or performing an ordinance.”

    I submit, sir, that you are not ambivalent about formality, but in fact are quite conscious of it and flout it. Your selective tie-wearing has given you away.

  31. They are in fact ironed, with plenty of starch, by the local dry cleaner.

    Ronan, as mentioned previously, I think this post brings out the relationship between formality and discipline in the educational setting.

  32. I work in the City in London, which most of the time is home to bankers and those who support them, but the last two days has also been home to protesters and activists.

    Most of the firms doing business in the City have encouraged their employees to dress down so as not to be targeted for violence. The result has been laughable. Yesterday I sat in a conference room with a lawyer dressed in jeans and a dress shirt. He didn’t wear a tie but his cuff-links were firmly in place. That scene was repeated all day long–and even when people had shed all vestiges of business attire, I’m certain there was never any confusion between the protestors in their black hoodies and wispy beards and the bankers in their designer jeans and fresh haircuts. The truth is, as Steve pointed out above, we don’t wear anything but our respective tribal uniforms.

    Despite the threat of being set upon by hippies, my wife traveled in with our two-year old and infant and met me for some Indian. We did see a few scruffy types milling about–they seemed harmless enough, as scruffy types usually are.

  33. Steve Evans says:

    Okay, now there is one more thing I’m jealous about. Mat – say hi to Gig for me.

  34. “I’m ambivalent about formality. Jesus seemed to be also.”

    Randall, why did the Roman soldiers refuse to rend his coat?

  35. Mat, this was the same for me here — it was “come disguised as a protester” day for two days here. The first day I forgot and today I couldn’t because I’m attending a reception at the House of Lords this evening.

  36. I don’t know that the virtue is formality, but rather conscientiousness. A man in a crisp clean expensive suit is no more virtuous than a man who is in a crisp clean blue collar uniform. The virtue is in the care taken to keep oneself clean, and in good repair out of respect for the people around you.

    On the other hand nearly every feminist knows that the sort of appearance one is required to maintain restricts the sorts of activities one can engage in. You can’t keep a school uniform clean and neat when you’re climbing trees or fighting in the hallways between classes (unless you are exceptionally skilled). By strictly policing appearance you can easily curtail a wide range of other hooliganery.

    So formality isn’t a virtue, it is a fence. However careful adherence to formality shows respect for the fence which can be a virtue, if the fence is worth respecting.

  37. Steve (#30) In interest of greater internal consistency:

    My ambivalence with formality at church is that it is expressed as a dichotomous standard with bright lines of compliance.

    White shirt and tie=Compliant
    Colored shirt or no tie=Non-compliant

    1 ear-ring on females=Compliant
    >1 piercing or male piercings=Non-compliant

    For me to wear a tie for a talk or an ordinance is to say that, while my desire to not wear a Mormon uniform is closely held, I also don’t want my beliefs about attire to distract from the intent of the talk or the ordinance for those who don’t share my views. On these days, I humbly accept the compliments about how handsome I look from my co-worshipers.

    I am fully aware that my choice of clothing is intentional and reflects an awareness of the extant norms (as we psychologists like to say “One cannot not communicate”). I hope to convey a consistent, but non-aggressive message of dissent about LDS uniform expectations.

    And, perhaps to your point Steve, it is akin to the higher dress and grooming standards expected of students at BYU. My freshman year was the last year that shorts were not allowed and men were required to wear socks. The day that the rule change was announced I went home between classes and changed into shorts and sandals.

    The ease with which this change was accommodated by the campus reinforced for me that it wasn’t a case of formal attire being right and casual attire being wrong. Rather, it was a case of the university setting an extreme standard about which the “rebels” could quibble on the margins. I presume it is believed that this helps to avoid the larger honor code violations and sins that are the true heart of the matter.

    If obedience at that level of the moral hierarchy is what works broadly, more power to the neck-tie. As for me and my house, we’ll remain ambivalent, visually subversive at-times, but conformist when the broader vision requires it.

  38. Tim J (#34) Please draw-out your point more. I’m not connecting your dots very well.

  39. The soldiers’ description of Christ’s coat leads me to believe he was less than ambivalent about his appearance.

  40. “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.”

    John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

  41. Peter LLC says:

    The first day I forgot and today I couldn’t because I’m attending a reception at the House of Lords this evening.

    That’s what they all say.

  42. Steve Evans says:

    If I ever start a male stripclub I’m calling it House of Lords. Adjacent to the House of Ladies.

  43. Peter LLC says:

    I’m curious, Ronan–what’s the uniform of an administrator at said school? How do the professors set themselves apart from those who would emulate them in manner and dress?

  44. Aaron Brown says:

    Finally, a definitive argument that proves the wisdom of BYU’s dress and grooming standards. Why did it take so long to produce this?


  45. Bruce Rogers says:

    Good grooming is perceived as one of the marks of a professional. That is why those crooks on Wall Street dressed in cuff links, etc., while they were swindling their clients. Unfortunately, we have hypocrites and ‘Pharisees’ in our day also.

  46. Today it’s ‘Formality is good.’ Tomorrow it’s “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

  47. The ultimate school uniform: Eton College. Adorable tuxes for teens. The royal princes went there.

  48. I see we finally got around to it. Bernie Madoff dressed formally.

  49. Natalie B. says:

    Love this post! Plus, what an adorable picture.

  50. >Ronan, as mentioned previously, I think this post brings out the relationship between formality and discipline in the educational setting.

    John, yes indeed. But explain *your* work uniform, then, Mr. Shoe Shine!

    Peter, you ask a sore question. Some of the faculty do dress scruffily — myself from time to time. But note, the Headmaster *never* does…

  51. Peter LLC says:

    Speaking of royal princes, formal dress and etiquette…

  52. Actually, what I guess I was trying to say about Bernie Madoff, et al, is that we are conditioned by our culture to respond in a certain way because of social cues.

    Formality can either convey respect, or it can mask negative motives in a veneer of respectability. I think we’ve all know some of the Eddie Haskell types who are outwardly very respectable, but are masking less appropriate behavior, using our cultural norms against us.

    That’s why some business scams proliferate so well through self contained communities, like a Utah County ward.

  53. Did Mrs. Obama really put her ARM around THE QUEEN? Oh my…

    First Lady etiquette handlers FAIL.

  54. Tracy, the Queen did say “Let’s keep in touch”.

  55. Peter LLC says:

    So, tweed blazer with leather patches at the elbows scruffy? Or is there no particular code?

  56. Anne (UK) says:

    At my (London, public (that’s as in our public school, not US public)) school, we had to wear indoor and outdoor shoes, a practice I follow at my place of work to this day. Eminently sensible.

  57. Anne, at my (Calgarian, public (that’s as in Canadian public school, not US public) school, we had to wear indoor and outdoor shoes, but the outdoor shoes were usually Sorels. We were never allowed to wear outdoor footwear in the house, as carpet and permafrost tundra don’t mix.

  58. Peter,
    For men, suits are preferred. At Eton, the masters actually wear the same penguin outfit as the boys.

  59. Anne (UK) says:

    Steve: I had to google ‘Sorels’. Our indoor and outdoor shoes had to be specified designs of Clarks’. In summer, I still wear Clarks’ shoes. You would be welcome to wear your Sorels in my home,as we don’t have carpets :-)

  60. Eric Russell says:

    Nastiness never was happiness.

  61. Our Sorels live in the boot-tray by the back door. No Sorels in the house!

  62. Thai food for 2 years is going to be a joy. Now let’s just hope that Thailand stays secure.

    And formal is good. I agree. Though I think the Mormon obsession with it is a fairly western convention.

  63. Do you think that formal wear (by a rational adult) might DECREASE good Samaritan acts? (I can’t help her change a tire, I might get my expensive suit dirty. Let the guy in the jogging suit do mouth-to-mouth, I might tear my pants).

  64. What kind of mouth-to-mouth are you doing where you tear your pants?!?

  65. Peter LLC says:

    carpet and permafrost tundra don’t mix.

    And here I thought all Canadians lived in igloos.

  66. Peter LLC says:

    What kind of mouth-to-mouth…

    If you have to ask…

  67. Formality — and its cousins etiquette and sartorial elegance — is crucial for harmonious exchanges with other humans.

    That statement is overbroad, but formality certainly has its place. At my work we are very casual in our dress but things seem to work out okay.

  68. #20: “you insist on a neat and tidy appearance, firm hand shakes, eye contact, and polite language. You have them stand when another adult enters the room and you punish them for slight misdemeanours…” Ronan (and Others) ideas of ” Good Manners”.
    I have been on the campus of USC, UCLA, Cal, and Stanford. There is none of this. But good education goes on.

  69. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan, what do you normally wear to teach in the classroom? If it is suits and ties, was that a big burden to purchase enough of that kind of clothing to sustain you over a term of school? Just curious how that sort of thing works there.

  70. Bob, visiting college campuses is a good thing. It doesn’t make you right.

  71. I have noticed over the years that teenage males act better and more responsible when dressed up. I am also in favor of more formal looking school uniforms for public schools in the US. I am also aware that this will never happen.

  72. bbell, Steve, etc., I think you’re describing the Hawthorne effect — roughly speaking, the now well-established finding that atypical situations, especially when combined with authoritative supervision or measurement of some kind, generally leads to improved behavior. It doesn’t have to be dressing up. It can be anything else clearly unusual, such as being shouted at by a drill instructor, put temporarily in charge of an adult activity, or forbidden to speak in English…

  73. JNS, not sure that I am describing that effect, but bbell is.

  74. So let me get all Biologic-y.

    Formality (or any such mutually agreed upon visual signal—painting your face blue before battle works) serves as a group marker to identify those that belong and those that don’t, or to mark special occasions of for within-group behavior. In this way it serves as an identifier and carrier of group expectations. This is probably why kids act better when dressed up: they see or have been taught group expectations and when so marked they tend to meet membership expectations. Thus formality functions as an in/out boundary and, that, mostly in a way to exclude others.

    There are two ways this plays out in biology.

    One way is mimicry. Like when all species in a region that really are poisonous look poisonous.

    In Ecology we call this Müllerian mimicry, where several poisonous species of, say butterflies, adopt (evolutionarily) similar warning coloration to let predators know they are not editable and to take their attack elsewhere. So Lawyers and Bankers dress in suits and ties as visual signals they are important, well-off, and forces to be reckoned with.

    Another way that marking plays out in animals in sexual selection where males display in ways that are energetically costly so females can assess their true worth as mates, “Mr. Peacock that tail of yours has some deficiencies I’m taking my genes somewhere else.”

    I think both of these are at play in human group marking. A real Armani Suit with Italian leather shoes says something about ones ability to meet energetic costs in humans just like tails in Peacocks. (Also there are all kinds of fake signals in biology designed to try and look good without paying the costs).

    I have no problems with groups self-marking to identify membership. Meaning, formality plays a nice social function in human society. But I have two questions.

    What about when we are trying to be inclusive? Why even have stringent group markers when we are trying to be inviting? Group marking (white-shirt/tie, dresses) can act as excluders. Maybe a few people in a Ward should be ‘called’ to dress down to help visitors and others feel welcome? Keep it a secret who is called so one never knows if one if just being causal or was called (I may be kidding here, I can’t tell).

    We often adopt group signals common to Western business culture, what other models could we use in the church? Why this kind of formality?

    (I should point out that in Ecology at the ‘formal’ Society meetings, to wear a tie would be a bad breach of etiquette and be considered highly inappropriate).

  75. Bob,
    My coworker, a USC alum, after I explained your comment to him, has indicated to me that you are wrong. No good education persists on UCLA’s campus.

  76. I don’t mind formality, so long as you can still wear sandals.

  77. Touche, DKL, Touche

  78. Ronan, re # 50 — I actually see a difference between having the boys in the school observe key elements of discipline-promoting formality and the “uniform” of City bankers and their lawyers. Unfortunately, I think that the City’s pinstripe suits are more about “fine-twined linen” and vanity than formality in the good sense, although some of the latter is definitely involved.

    I think everything you say is valid about the educational setting. I just don’t know whether those observations apply to the workplace but I am friendly to the idea that productivity will be better in a workplace where people are dressed in business attire (and it seems logical that there will be more professionalism in that environment).

  79. Tatiana says:

    I don’t see how formality and inclusiveness can coexist. They would seem to me to be antithetical to one another.

  80. Wow Ronan, or should I say Jeremy Bentham redivivus! You should check out Foucault’s _Discipline and Punish_, which is in part about the use of prison techniques in the schools. You’ll get some great ideas! :)

  81. TT,
    I have become obsessed with discipline, this is true. It’s an honour to be associated with Bentham and I’ll be sure to check out Foucault.

  82. When you finish constructing a panopticon in your school, Ronan, let me know; I’ll come and visit — or will I? The inmates will never be able to tell…

  83. Ronan, obviously these guys have never had to teach teenaged boys in the state school system. (Neither have I but having spoken often with you of your experiences doing so, I can see how important this connection between formality and discipline and learning at your school is for you.)

  84. (The “formality” that Ronan is talking about here consists of dressing in the school uniform and keeping that uniform tidy while wearing it and learning respect for the teachers for the purpose of not disrupting the rest of the students’ learning experience, not prison techniques. There isn’t anything sinister about any of this, and, frankly, those boys are extraordinarily lucky to be learning in that environment and with such phenomenal teachers as Ronan.)

  85. John — obviously Ronan isn’t literally talking about prison techniques, although ironically most of the specific techniques you mentioned in #84 are in fact used in prisons…

  86. Mark Brown says:

    There’s nothing magical about a uniform. The public school system where I live requires uniforms for all grades K-12, the students all say ma’am and sir, and the schools are still spectacularly awful.

  87. #78: “..I am friendly to the idea that productivity will be better in a workplace where people are dressed in business attire (and it seems logical that there will be more professionalism in that environment).”
    Tests show a lab coat is more powerful than a suit. My wife was an RN in the 60s and had to wear white nylons and a hat. I don’t think it made her a better Nurse. I was a Marine, and yes , we dressed to kill.
    I was also “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit “ 30 years. {suit and tie). I don’t think it made me smarter. When my son graduated (with honors) from Berkley, he had to borrow a tie from me that day, as he had none.

  88. Did anyone say that a suit makes someone smarter?

    Also, your son graduated from Berkeley and you were railing against elitism in comment # 15? Out of touch, anyone?

  89. JNS, are you saying that because people in prisons wear uniforms and are expected to speak respectfully to their guards, schools either (1) should not do so because such is done in prisons or (2) schools that do so are like prisons? Both seem fallacious to me. It seems clear, however, that you are not in favor of tidy dress, respect and good behavior in schools, at least to the extent that it is “suggested” by the “authorities”.

  90. Peter LLC says:

    schools that do so are like prisons?

    When Johnny has spoken, the debate is over:

  91. John, excuse me for a moment while I burble in confusion…

    I don’t care about tidy dress and formal manners in schools one way or the other. They work fine, and so do some other approaches. As long as a school adopts a workable approach, it’s all for the good as far as I’m concerned. My interventions here are directed against the idea that a specific concept of formal dress and manners is uniquely effective in ways that other social arrangements are not. Good behavior I approve of in general; I’m just that way.

    You might actually get a kick out of reading (rereading?) Discipline and Punish, by the way. A central theme in that text is that discipline and order are universally created by a shared set of techniques, and prisons become a particularly vivid theoretical illustration of those principles. The connection with prison does not imply that discipline is of a universally negative normative valence.

    To take your point more specifically, of course Ronan’s school is like a prison in some ways. For example, I presume that it has walls, as prisons do. I also presume that the school — like most prisons — has salaried employees who run the place. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that both British prisons and Ronan’s school fly the British flag. Likewise, I would be fundamentally astonished if Ronan’s school totally eschewed all of the techniques for creating order used in prisons. These are comparisons along specific dimensions. The fact that Ronan’s school is like a prison in some ways certainly does not imply that it is like a prison in all ways. Obviously, for instance, the religion teachers at most prisons are far suckier than the one at Ronan’s school. Also, I’ve heard a rumor that the bars in the cages where Ronan’s students sleep are made of treacle rather than iron.

  92. Mark Brown says:

    I hear that the P.E. teachers at Ronan’s school abuse the handicapped. It’s like Gitmo.

  93. Re tribal uniforms and what we wear at church.

    Last Sunday we had a combined RS/Priesthood session given by an LDS pollster who has done research on how Mormons and their messages are perceived by others.

    He arrived for sacrament meeting wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sat near the back of the chapel and observed how members reacted to him. Later he changed into a white shirt, tie and suit coat for his presentation and named those who approached him.

    He told us he has done this experiment many times, using the Hawaiian shirt as a visible marker of a visitor. And he encouraged us to try the same experiment ourselves in a ward where we’re not known to get an understanding of what it is like to be a stranger at a Mormon church service.

  94. #88: “… those boys whose suits are the cleanest, whose ties are done up to the collar, whose shirts are tucked in, and who sprinkle their interactions with liberal doses of “sirs,” “pleases,” and “thank-yous,” are also the boys whose behaviour is most conducive to learning and achievement.” I am sorry if I misdefined that as “smarter”.
    I can’t believe anyone sees Berkley as “ elitism “! I believe it is the cheapest major college in America (?) I recall about $1650 per semester. My son spent 2 years at a JC so we could handle that. USC paid him $20,000 during his post grad fellowship.
    I don’t think you would see ten guys wearing a tie at Berkley.

  95. I’ve found that people who don’t care for formality are just as fussy about their clothes, all the same.

  96. madhousewife, some of them, certainly. But there are people out there who just like not having to worry about clothes…

  97. Steve Evans says:

    …we call them nudists.

  98. MikeInWeHo says:

    It just occurred to me that this post went up during the London summit.

    Are you channeling Oscar de la Renta, Ronan?

  99. #74, I agree with the biologicity of it all. One of my most uncomfortable times, ever, was when I was working as a intern in a chemical engineering firm in Jersey City, NJ. I forgot that the intern lunch was to be that day and wore my normal shirt and khaki pants to work. My boss came down to get me and was concerned I did not have more formal wear.

    I scrambled to find a tie. We drove across the river to Manhattan to the hotel where there were maybe 50 or 60 interns and bosses. I was the only one without a suit. Sooo disconcerting. I did not fit it.

    So, when I wear my camel’s hair jacket to church with a yellow or green tie, I am broadcasting my “outsider” status and willingness to be different. Not a good idea in the LDS Church if you want to fit it.

    Another comment. As a young missionary in Austria I became friends with the Hausherr’s son, a 14 or 15 year old boy. He, being used to a much more formal relationship to adults, took my informality as an opportunity to be rude and insulting, treating me as he would treat his equals.

    I took this as a great lesson. When I raised my own children I did not use formality as a distancing mechanism to keep control of them. On the other hand, I was open and friendly and accessible. My children never had the problem of Wolfgang. They got along with adults well and have been much happier with life, I am sure.

    Formality is fun for special occasions. It is necessary to impress the masses and keep control for other occasions, which I find deplorable. Informality of spirit breed love and acceptance.

  100. And this is why I periodically lament over the fact that I am no longer teaching at a school that required uniforms. I’ve taught at full uniform schools, a “uniform on Fridays” school (sort of backwards of casual Friday) and no uniform school (currently).

    The children’s behavior is better at the schools where uniforms were required. One of my (British) bosses used to get on the kids if their shirt was untucked or their collar was wrong, and I used to think she was so harsh, but now I see her wisdom. She ran a tight ship and the kids knew what was expected of them: both in dress habits and study habits. It wasn’t a bad experience.

  101. Elphaba says:

    Re: Michelle and the Queen…. The Queen put her arm around Michelle FIRST!.

    Second on Michelle’s sleevelessness: She’s not endowed so who cares? Well other than me drooling over her clothing and dreading a fashion trend I can’t partake in.

    I also agree with Scott B on UCLA. Fight On!

    Having worked at one agency where dress was often business Casual to professional and transfering to an agency where the dress is down right sloppy to business casual (I’ve seen sweats at the office) I really see a difference in professionalism and attitude. I try to keep myself dressed more professionally, but find myself wearing jeans more than I think I should. I can really see the positives for a more professional attire.

  102. Bill Gates disagrees with you. Redmond’s evil empire cultivates an environment of informality and it is arguably the most successful organization on earth.

    Vista is probably evidence that M$oft engineers should start wearing ties to work.