that some people seem to agonize over how they appear in public, while others don’t seem to give it a second thought?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that some people seem to agonize over how they appear in public, while others don’t seem to give it a second thought? Even on her day off, my sister would never dream of running out to the corner store for a newspaper without first doing her hair and applying a full course of make-up. But her husband is perfectly happy to walk around sloppy and unshaved. What makes people care so much or so little about the way they appear to others?

A: You are correct in observing differences in how people present themselves in public. Social psychologists use the term self-monitoring to describe the degree to which we manage the impressions that others form about us. You can think of self-monitoring behavior as a continuous scale ranging from very high to very low – or anywhere in between.

Self-monitoring has to do with how much (or little) we scrutinize our self-image when in public. Some of us engage in high degrees of self-monitoring, as in the case of your sister. High monitoring individuals are painfully aware and concerned about how others view them, and they go to great lengths to control and manage the public impressions they form. They carefully construct their physical appearance, conversation and personal characteristics in such a way as to maximize a positive response from others.

We all engage in high self-monitoring behaviors in specific social contexts. In preparing for a job interview, for example, we carefully select and present ourselves in ways that will foster positive impressions. We wear clean and presentable clothing, groom ourselves, and speak and act in socially desirable ways. But for most, the minute we get home from the interview, we’re likely to shed our suits and pantyhose in exchange for our favorite jeans, tee-shirts or sweats. But someone who is considered to be a high self-monitoring individual will exhibit these extreme “make-overs” in most any social situation – regardless of how casual it may be. In order to avoid feeling socially “naked,” they feel compelled to wear their “public persona” to reduce feelings of social insecurity, vulnerability and inadequacy. High self-monitoring has been correlated with low degrees of self-esteem, where people may fear their true selves are socially unacceptable in some way.

Low self-monitoring behavior is typically reflected when individuals are comfortable with how and who they are. Often related to higher degrees of self-esteem, these individuals are not overly dependent upon social opinion when determining their own worth. With a secure self-concept, they tend to engage in genuine degrees of self-expression – regardless of social context. It’s worth mentioning that in extreme cases of depression or other “disordered” functioning, individuals can lose interest in engaging in personal grooming habits or socially acceptable behaviors. But with these exceptions aside, one who goes to the store to get milk and bread without shaving or applying make-up, is likely a low self-monitoring and genuine individual (see 7/18/08 column for related details about self-disclosure vs. self-presentation).

It’s also worth mentioning that there are gender differences in the social expectations of personal appearance. Women are taught from an early age that their “natural” physical appearance is inadequate or incomplete unless they wear make-up. In an effort to enhance their looks and/or conceal their “flaws,” many women feel naked and insecure until they “put their face on.” Essentially, women are taught they are to look clean, pretty and smell nice at all times. The messages for men are very different. It is perfectly acceptable for men to be less hygienic than women. The unshaven, sweaty male with dirty clothes is seen as rugged and hardworking – the prototypical “Marlboro Man” concept. Males tend to be measured in terms of achievement– and women in terms of physical attractiveness – accounting for many gender differences in how males and females monitor their public appearance.

But regardless of gender, the impeccably dressed individual may appear impressive on the outside, but in reality, may be superficial, pretentious and ill natured. Along these same lines, the person that appears sloppy and unkempt may very well be a beautiful and caring individual on the inside. Therefore, it’s always best to reserve judgment about others until you get to know them. And while we may only get one chance to make a first impression, it is also true that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”