What can you do when you’re a fish out of water?

By Laura Bergells on
Balaclava Laura

“We’re enduring a subzero cold snap, so pack warm clothing. Bring a coat, hat, gloves, and boots,” I advised a southern client over the phone. She was planning to fly up to deliver a series of training meetings for her northern clients. I was to make introductions and serve as her co-presenter in my home state of Michigan.

“Laura, that’s unprofessional,” she replied. “You don’t want to walk into our client’s offices dressed like an 19th century fur trapper. It doesn’t reflect our brand.”

She gave me a short phone lecture on how to dress appropriately for business presentations. No matter how hot or cold it is, you simply don’t let it bother you. Rise above the forces of nature to project confidence! No coats, no gloves, no scarf — you can wear that stuff in the car if you’re a wimp, she explained — but you need to take it off before striding confidently into an office building to meet with clients.

When I picked her up at the airport, she was wearing a skirt, blouse, and high heels. Bare legs! No hose. No coat. No jacket. I suspected my highly confident colleague might feel a twinge of regret as we walked through the snow to my car. Instead, she clutched at me like a frightened child and howled about wanting to die.

“Did you bring ANYTHING warm to wear?” I asked.

“No,” she cried. “Who knew anything could ever be this cold?”

“I’ll have to take you to a department store. You really need a coat,” I said. “And either pants or hose. And real shoes.”

“Can’t I just wear something of yours?” she asked. “I don’t want to spend money on clothes I’ll never wear again, because I am never coming back to this frozen wasteland in my life.”

This was after only a few minutes. I was concerned about how she was going to handle the next 3 days.

“I’m over 6 feet tall,” I said. “You’re what — 5 foot nothing? Other than a scarf, you’re going to look insane in everything I own.”

She wailed that we didn’t have time to shop. Just throw some of your winter wear on me, she begged.

We stopped by my house and went through my wardrobe. Everything she tried on made her look like a little girl playing dress up in her mommy’s clothing.

“This will have to do,” she said. My hat and mittens didn’t look too bad on her. Too big, but not too bad. Everything else was just amazingly too big for her, but she was too cold to care.

For the next three days, she looked like a bedraggled ragamuffin. She actually wore one of my cardigan sweaters over her own clothing. It engulfed her tiny body. Still, she would shiver and shake through our presentations like a brave chihuahua.

Our meetings, however, went surprisingly well. Her clients were too polite to say anything about her weird appearance to her face.

A month or so after she went home, I was still working with my client’s clients. Every single one mentioned her woeful wardrobe and obvious misery.

And we all laughed at the memory…a curious blend of empathy, sympathy, and schadenfreude. If our southern colleague ever returns to Michigan, she is going to face some good-natured ribbing from her northern colleagues.

At this point, I’d like to present you with two completely contrary takeaways from this story:

1. Dress appropriately. “Dressing appropriately” depends on circumstances. Even if you feel absolutely positive about what’s appropriate and what’s not — ask a trusted local, anyway. Taking a minute or two to have this conversation can steer you in the right direction. Plus, it also creates a moment to bond and connect with your local host or event coordinator.

2. People love a fish out of water. In a perverse way, our presentations went well BECAUSE of my client’s inappropriate attire, not in spite of it! Although her clients were too kind to say anything to her face, we all recognize and love a “fish out of water” story. Her appearance gave us a reason to feel kinder, more sympathetic — and let’s face it — a little more superior than usual!

Personally? I have definitely dressed inappropriately more times than I’d like to admit! I’d rather not be a fish out of water — but it happens.

If you ever find yourself acting or dressing inappropriately, how can you use the ‘fish out of water’ theory to your advantage?

One comment

  1. Laura:

    Sometimes you can just enjoy the role. A decade ago on a consulting assignment I accompanied an engineer from a plant Kitimat, British Columbia (population ~10,000) to a repair facility in Appleton, Wisconsin (population ~70,000) where a large piece of their equipment needed to be fixed.

    The guys at that facility were used to visitors griping about their small town, but were charmed to meet someone from an even smaller town. When we drove near the local mall at lunchtime, he gleefully blurted out “Get out your loonies and your toonies,” which is what he’d tell his kids when they went shopping. (Loonies are Canadian $1 coins, and logically toonies are $2 coins). Of course, he also asked about how many hockey rinks they had for the kids to play at in Appleton, and was surprised it was no larger than the number back in Kitimat.

    Richard

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