It was many years ago that I stopped by the post office to gather mail. Among the bills was a small ivory envelope. My name, though misspelled, was presented in printed hand. The postmark was from a midwestern state.
Back in the car, I opened it to find that it was from a ninth grade female student. She explained that her class had read my book, “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” I thought it to be a strange class choice but considered that the students were choosing from current bestsellers.
As I noted in the book, Southern women have always been feminine feminists. We are hard — sometimes very unglamorous — workers. When needed, we work the hay fields, scrub the basement on our knees, Clorox a winter’s worth of dirt from the porches and cut down then drag away limbs from spring pruning.
But we like the other side: dress up for church, lunch, a visit to neighbors. In the book, published 21 years ago — I still stand behind this — I wrote that the way you present yourself for a job or to meet new people, personally and professionally, sets their first impression. A person well dressed and organized is surely pulled together professionally and will always have a system of arranging files. Or dishes. Or horse supplies in the barn.
More importantly, it demonstrates respect.
Too, I stated that apparel color — not always black — gives you additional points in those first impressions. Sometimes I hear an employer or a colleague say about someone, “I remember what she was wearing when she came in to meet us. It was a bright red dress with large brass buttons. Very elegant but serious minded.”
One person even said, “We sat down at the conference table, and later it became a conversation between us, that we kept feeling drawn to that strong color. The competition was intense for the job but her bold choice stood out in our minds.”
That note from the young Midwestern girl, though, was having none of it. She was enraged. In clear terms, she told me that she wore jeans and sweat shirts every day, had honor grades and, once she graduated, she planned to work for a company that would allow her to dress the same.
“I am not defined by what I wear but my ability.” True, I would quickly agree. But I would also argue that a person’s definition is enhanced and made bolder by thoughtful wardrobe choices. In these days when a record number of students are trying to elbow into a company, a nice dress or suit can emphasize one from a crowd of thousands.
The young woman’s words became harsher as she wrote. My feelings were crushed by the meanness but then I begin to wonder if the teacher had approved the note. Surely not. The purity of the note’s meaning was fine. The ugliness wasn’t.
My heart was sad the rest of the day then, as I was having coffee the next morning, there came a time — 8:46 a.m. — when those words disappeared into a sea of forgetfulness, not to be remembered again for a long time. A commercial plane, then another, hit the World Trade Center in New York and the young woman’s note mattered no more.
A few weeks before I received that note, a rural Tennessee high school girl had also written. This young woman was giddy.
“You know the stuff you said in your book about how being kind and gracious can get things to go your way more often and get people to like you more? Well, I tried it on my teachers and it really worked! Are there any other tips you can give me?”
Same book. Two completely different take-aways. I continue to dress up and am devoted to writing thank you notes.
It still works.
[Ronda Rich is the bestselling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should),” now in its 41st printing after 21 years.]