Women’s Workplace Style

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This article was written by guest writer Rachel Leong.

Did you know that roughly 93% of a first impression comes from nonverbal cues?* Sure, first impressions may not be everything, but they’re something. And as a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C., they are a big something.

At 13-years old, I knew I had to call Washington, D.C. home one day. The politics, the people, the pace—I romanticized everything about this city. Most kids were daydreaming about themed birthday parties and boy bands, but not me. I’m not sure why that was, either. I think I was mostly normal in other regards. I think? Regardless, my 13-year old self had no idea that ten years later, I would get to work in the West Wing of the White House.

The White House is known for many things, good and bad (and very bad). But for me, it was
long hours and late nights, high stakes and political infighting, it was my 8 to 5 and it was my dream. The home of many presidents and the heartbeat of our nation’s capital, the White House pushed me, pulled me, and helped shape me into the woman I am today—but it wasn’t without a learning curve, or two…or 50.

I’ve always known that nonverbal cues matter. Sit up straight, maintain eye contact, talk with your eyebrows —these are all pointers that rang in my ear every time I walked into an office in the West Wing. I am in the room with dignified, stately professionals and I am a humble 23 years old. How am I qualified to be working 30-feet from the leader of the free world? Well, hopefully my eyebrows were convincing.

My favorite nonverbal gesture has always been a firm handshake. I love giving them and I love receiving them. To me, it communicates confidence in yourself, respect for the other individual, and it sets a tone for your conversation. Whether you’re discussing nuclear agreements or meeting your sister’s boyfriend for the first time, every conversation of importance begins with a good, firm handshake.

Working at the White House as a 23-year old female who looks like she’s 17, I always felt like I had to pay a little extra attention to my nonverbal communication. I wanted to be seen as capable and confident, but how do I do that when I have the face and build of a minor? The eyebrows can only do so much! There was a distinct moment early on in my career when I realized that a firm handshake wasn’t the only thing that mattered.

I needed to look the part, too.

My style—just like that handshake—was an outward expression of my inward confidence. For me, it was time to graduate from floral dresses and frilly garments. College chic and Sunday best just did not land the same in the West Wing. Fitted blazers, low buns, and pump heels quickly became a part of my everyday wardrobe. Out with the old, and in with the new. And I LOVED this new! It was confident and professional, and it communicated on the outside exactly what I felt like on the inside.

I still value the days when I get to lounge around in oversized tees and fuzzy socks. I look in the mirror and still see me—confident and capable, just enjoying some forced relaxation. Heck, those days are just as important as late nights in the West Wing! They tell my story and represent what I value in life just the same.

Realizing that what I wear is an expression of who I am wasn’t an oppressive reality, but rather an empowering understanding that I can speak for myself without saying a word. I am no longer college chic and pajama-casual. I am a firm handshake and a fitted blazer—and it’s nice to finally meet you.

* Cummings, K. (2011). Nonverbal Communication and First Impressions [Undergraduate thesis, Kent State University]. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. http:// rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ksuhonors1305161866

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