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Your Nonverbal (Curbside) Appeal

How we present affects how we are perceived at home and at work.

When I bought my first house 35 years ago, I remember the real estate agent saying as we drove up, “This place has nice curbside appeal.” This term, mostly used in the real estate industry, resonated with me in a way that went beyond how a house looks from the street. It made me think of other structures and locations, and whether or not they had “curbside appeal.” As I began to study more about nonverbal communications (everything that sends a message except words), I wondered too about the human side of the equation. As it turns out, objects and locations are not the only things to have a curbside appeal; we humans do as well.

Early cave dwellers, our ancestors, adorned their dwellings with paintings of animals, hunting scenes, outlines of their hands and so forth, in part to enhance the aesthetic value of their dwellings. No doubt this made these primitive homes more appealing to their owners as well as visitors. Thirty thousand years later, we still do the same thing. We paint the house, trim the hedges, cut the grass, and manicure the lawn, all for aesthetic value. Nothing has changed for tens of thousands of years.

In “What Every Body is Saying,” I wrote about how when the conquistadores arrived in the so-called “New World," they found the same need for aesthetic beauty in buildings, gardens, fountains, city squares, etc. here in the Americas. Buildings were found to be symmetrical, inspiring, decorated, painted, adorned, and maintained just as they were in Europe. They had carved statues, tended gardens, lakes with gilded vessels, painted pottery and colorful yarns. This universal need to have order in designs, proportioned symmetry, and aesthetics, reflects in part our human desire for beauty in all manifestations.

But I think aesthetics also has other effects on us. I think it also gives order to the universe in the same way that birds on a utility pole will place themselves equidistant from each other, looking at times like a ruler with markings. We rely on aesthetics to provide comfort to us. When we have comfort, we can begin to trust. In fact, there is no trust when there is a high degree of discomfort, a topic I address at length in my book, Louder Than Words, along with the “broken window effect.”

Here’s what I mean when I say that aesthetics affects us in many ways. Think about banks. All banks are up against the same prime lending rate. It is inescapable. So how do we choose one over the other? Proximity yes, but when two or more occupy the four corners of an intersection, a key influence on their selection is curbside appeal: A clean entrance, washed windows, and well- maintained exteriors including bushes, as well as ample parking help us make that decision. Why would you want to bank at a place where the paint is peeling, the windows are filthy, garbage has accumulated at the base of the bushes and plants haven’t been trimmed in months? That’s not the kind of place you want to entrust with your money. If they don’t care about themselves, they certainly aren’t going to care about you.

It is interesting to note how in the late seventies gas stations found that it wasn’t just the price of the gasoline that was attracting customers; how the place looked was also a large factor, especially with more women entering the workforce and driving more often. They wanted, as we all do, cleaner spaces, more hygienic bathrooms, and lighting – lots of lighting. In fact, you can place two gas stations side by side and raise the price of gas at one of them; surprisingly, the station that is better lit at night will attract more customers, in spite of the higher cost. Why? The curbside appeal is one of security and safety as well as cleanliness. And if you paint the place and make it look really attractive, you can raise the price of gas $.05 a gallon and people will still come. That’s how powerful curbside appeal is.

But it’s not just buildings and houses that have a curbside appeal. Somewhere along the way, as humans began to clothe themselves, they also began to improve their own appearance, or as we term it here, their “curbside appeal.” With clothing, ornaments, beads, flowers, tattoos, and even bindings, humans have always sought to improve their outward image; no doubt an evolutionary requirement to enhance the ability to attract mates. Plastic surgery has soared in demand precisely to meet the desires of women and men, to enhance their physical attraction. Every culture speaks to us of beauty and its quest; it is now available to more people than at any time in history.

By enhancing our beauty, we appeal to deep psychological requirements which we find rewarding. How do we know this? Babies (days old) are attracted to and will look at the faces of beautiful individuals longer than those less fortunate. In the same way, a runway model may hold our attention longer than someone who is passing us on the subway and has no makeup and is not well groomed. There is a beauty dividend which does help some individuals. But there are other things that communicate nonverbally which are equally or more powerful.

While it is useful to recognize that there is a beauty dividend, it is not, as my partner in writing, Toni Sciarra says, “destiny.” Poor performance and a bad attitude will derail the career of the most attractive. Conversely, a great attitude, positive thinking, performance, and good grooming can compensate for less than perfect looks. For example, our bodies, not our words, communicate whether or not we are confident, honest, trustworthy, well mannered, and so forth. These aspects of nonverbal communication say much about us and can affect those around us. Confidence and trustworthiness have a powerful curbside appeal. Of what value is beauty if no one wants to associate with you or trusts you? We gain trust and others seek us out by the totality of our curbside appeal.

Likewise, when we look at great leaders, those truly wonderful individuals whose humility, dynamic presence, and demeanor sway us, we are looking at people whose curbside appeal does exactly as advertised.

When I talk to young people I remind them that they will be scanned for information by others every day of their lives. It is a nonstop process in which each of us assess and test each other continuously. I also tell them that we have to be mindful of our curbside appeal. All of my students raise their hand when I ask, “Do you know someone whose dress, behavior, or comportment, makes you want to avoid them?” Without hesitation they can name one if not more individuals who match these criteria. That, I tell them, is because those individuals have such poor curbside appeal that even at a distance their attire, attitude, or general demeanor detracts from them. Their nonverbals shout, "Stay away," and we do.

Just as we seek beauty in things and in others, we have to be mindful of our own curbside appeal. It is in our nature to seek beauty and symmetry and find comfort there. We must not ignore our own appeal, because we too can become a blight to the eyes by our looks, as well as our behavior. If we value ourselves, then we must value how we are perceived. To do less is to relinquish dominion over ourselves and hand it to others, gratuitously, without say. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “Self love is not so vile a sin as self neglect.”

Copyright © Joe Navarro 2010.

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