Subtextual Communication Impression Management: An Empirical Study

Article excerpt


Subtextual communication, a covert language that strengthens or negates the spoken text, is used to influence the impressions other people have of us and may be used to competitive advantage in numerous situations in the workplace. The subtext is more subtle than the obvious text and may be more honest in interactions between people (Fast, 1991).

Subtextual communication elements are related to image and may convey positive or negative impressions related to assurance, credibility, competence, and savoir-faire through dress, manner of introducing people, body language, regard for time, use of electronic communication, and dining etiquette.

Understanding positive and negative impressions conveyed by certain subtextual messages can enable a person to control the image he or she wishes to project. Since books are often judged by their covers and people by the external images they project, learning to manipulate subtextual communication can be important for career advancement.

Subtextual communication elements addressed in this paper include business dress, introductions, gestures and body language, punctuality and regard for time, use of electronic communication, and dining etiquette.


People form impressions of others within 30 seconds to a minute of meeting them. A primary source of this initial impression is dress and overall appearance. Leary (1995) points out that "whether we like it or not, people's reactions to others are affected by their physical appearance" (p. 93). One's appearance should inspire confidence and give an impression of confidence and professionalism (Fast, 1991).

The consensus of the literature on the meaning of dress in society is that powerful messages are communicated by clothing (Rafaeli & Pratt, 1993). In some companies, employees who do not maintain the firm's dress standards will probably pay the price, including being passed over for promotion or even being terminated. Riordan (1989) cautions that business persons must be extremely careful to adhere to rigorous standards of dress and to acknowledge that even minor variations can result in one's downfall. John T. Molloy, a well-known image consultant, emphasizes how important dress is in projecting power. Molloy (1981) recommends wearing serious clothing, very dark suits in charcoal gray or navy blue pinstripe with white shirts or blouses and obviously expensive accessories, to enhance the person's psychological sense of power. Wallach (1986) also recommends conservative attire: business suits in gray, navy and medium blue, and tan for men, skirted suits (or skirts with contrasting jackets) in black, brown, beige, navy, gray, and wine for women. People who wear suits, whether male or female, are perceived as more professional than those who wear another type of attire (Rafaeli & Pratt, 1993). Women are advised to wear a buttoned-up collar and avoid walking into the office in running shoes. Men should avoid cheap ties and polyester clothes (DeMott, 1985). People who wear jeans and sandals to work are giving the impression that they are not serious about their work (Rosenfeld, Giacalone, & Riordan, 1989).

Appropriateness of dress to the specific occasion is important. People who are dressed appropriately for the occasion usually feel better about themselves, feel more self-confident, and behave professionally (Solomon, 1986). Dressing formally is suggested for meetings in the executive suite while informal attire is appropriate when interacting with other employees in the company's exercise facility (Mercer, 1993). The "dressing down" trend practiced by some firms is avoided by others. Firms who handle other people's money (banks) or those who place a high value on image and credibility (law firms) still follow a traditional dress code (Veverka, 1995).

Color, fabric, and value are also attributes of organizational dress. …


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