Not too long ago, I started wearing turtlenecks on a daily basis. Why? Because I love the way they feel, the fact that they’re warm but light enough for almost any kind of weather (with the possible exception of Nevada’s summers) and the fact that I won’t have to agonize over choosing a work-appropriate T-shirt in the morning. (Why yes, my mind is a strange place.)
Like many other things I do, my love affair with turtlenecks serves multiple purposes. One of them is an open-ended sociological experiment to see people’s reaction to an average guy wearing an unusual item of clothing. Sometimes I do the same thing with my suit: I do my best business casual impression, dress sharp and just spend the day walking around town or running errands: eating out, mailing a letter at the post office, etc. Sometimes I do the same thing, but dressed in my best 1990s attire: a canary-yellow sweatshirt, baggy jeans and a giant peace sign around my neck.
It’s quite amazing to see just how differently people react to the same person when he wears a different outfit. Preconceived notions and stereotypes kick in and take over their rational thinking, forming their first impression for them based on a split-second analysis of what they see – or what they think they see. As a social scientist of sorts, I love this phenomenon: it’s a great way to hack people’s minds or, at the very least, get them out of their routine and shake up their world, if only a little. Don’t believe me? Try putting on your most professional outfit and walking into McDonald’s. Or get a bunch of presidential dollar coins from the bank and use them to pay for small purchases. The expressions on people’s faces when you do that (or something equally out-of-the-box original) are priceless.
Anyway, on to the turtleneck experiment. For reasons I’m still trying to figure out, turtlenecks either never really caught on, or had a brief period of popularity, after which they were banished to thrift stores and dusty attics. I can’t think of the last time I saw a fellow turtleneck enthusiast in real life. I’m pretty sure most people would say the same thing. That might be why their faces get that unique “what’s going on?!” look when they see me walking around in a turtleneck. Over the past week, I’ve experienced a number of averted gazes from men, double-takes from women, stunned and awkward silence from Subway sandwich makers, and frozen smiles from buffet hostesses. (Then again, I’m pretty sure the latter have seen far stranger things in their line of work.) Some of the coworkers modified their behavior by either avoiding eye contact or staring in silence, as if trying to figure out what’s going on. Not a single person thus far actually asked me why I started wearing turtlenecks.
It’s quite funny if you think about it: people wouldn’t act any differently if I wore a regular sweater, but a turtleneck – the same sweater but with a longer neck – confuses them and changes the way they perceive me. Such a small change makes such a huge difference. If I were just a tad more evil, I’d figure out a way to hack people’s subconscious first impressions and use them to my advantage, but it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Not for now, in any case.