How Wisdom and Style Coordinate: Pillars of Modern Civility, Part 2
Modern civility encompasses every interaction we have with the people around us. From the attire we choose to how we walk, civility indicates strength, confidence, and character in every situation. In Part 1 of our 5 Pillars of Modern Civility, we looked at decorum and how it informs style. In part 2, we’re exploring how wisdom and style work together to demonstrate modern etiquette in today’s social and business cultures.
Wisdom: When, Not How
If decorum is the “how” of civility, wisdom is the “when”. In Francis Hawkins’s 110 Rules of Civility, wisdom is a frequent theme, and it always comes down to this: Know when to speak, and know when to keep silent. As it states in Rule 68:
“Go not thither, where you know not, whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked, and when desired do it briefly.”
In today’s language, we’d simply say: Don’t give unwanted advice, and don’t give it where you don’t have the wisdom to share.
Likewise, Rule 73 encourages us to be clear, concise, and thoughtful when we speak. Not only is this a mechanical rule (don’t stutter or rush your speech), but it also speaks to the idea of taking a breath before adding your opinion.
A true gentleman knows when his words are welcome, when they should be absent, and when their opinion is worth giving. Wisdom is a timing discipline for those with knowledge to share. Sharing the right information at the wrong time can be disastrous, not only for the speaker but also for the listener. A man of high character, then, practices discernment in all he does and says.
So what does this have to do with style?
Wisdom and style require discernment in timing. That favorite watch you wear when you hike? It’s at home when you go to a black-tie event. The awesome comic-book cufflinks you cherish? No boardroom appearances for them. The comfy sneakers for your morning runs? Not for business meetings.
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How you wear something is important, but when you wear it makes the real difference. No matter how hard you rock your t-shirt and jeans, they only work if the timing is right. But it’s not just about your comfort. How you dress for an event speaks to how you honor the host and guests.
And that first impression should be of sophistication, not foolishness.
How to Combine Wisdom and Style
Just as each word should be chosen with care and intentionality, each piece of your wardrobe should be chosen to represent your sophistication and character. From your jacket to your shoes, your attire describes your personality in one way or another. Here’s how to make sure it says what you want it to say.
Choose Timeless Pieces
Funky, fun, themed pieces have their place, but they shouldn’t be a part of business professional attire or black tie events. Instead, choose pieces that hold timeless style and value. Wisdom and style both speak softly, and only when necessary. Likewise, it’s best to leave flashy, extravagant, or gaudy pieces out of your wardrobe when meeting with clients or engaging in social occasions. Gentlemen don’t clamor for attention, but instead work to bring attention and honor to those around them. The wise man knows that true strength is shown through character, not attention.
Know Your Audience
The company you’re in should not dictate who you are, but it should guide how you carry yourself. Think of it this way: a man in a tuxedo will look out of place in a casual gathering, even if he looks absolutely dashing in it. And a man dressed in a smart casual ensemble will look foolish at a formal event. Again, “when” is a key component of both wisdom and style, since both looks can be incredible when the moment calls for them.
So do your research for your upcoming event, whether it’s just talking with friends or reading through a definitive guide to formal dress. Being prepared is yet another component of wisdom. Make sure your attire matches the company you’ll be spending your time with. When your wardrobe speaks for itself, it gives you room to keep silent until you have something important to say.
Be Quiet, But Not Silent
Now, the wise man does not simply hide in the shadows and avoid conversation. Being quiet when it’s appropriate is indeed wise, but speaking up, making a statement, when the situation calls for it is far more wise than keeping silent. And your attire can be just as effective in communicating the right message at the right time.
Pairing splashes of color, elegance, or interest with classic style gives a fresh perspective on a familiar look. A classic silver medallion cufflink with a semi-precious stone pops against white cuffs and grey jacket sleeves. And an intricately designed tie bar dresses up even the most ordinary of ties without drawing unnecessary attention.
Balancing subtle and striking draws positive attention without making it all about you in the moment. Wisdom and style work best when they don’t beg for the spotlight.
Don’t Try to Be Someone Else
Finally, wisdom and style both require a sense of confidence in oneself. The foolish man tries hard to be someone or something he is not, just to gain unwarranted attention or praise. Stealing another’s character or fashion doesn’t show wisdom.
When you’re preparing for a major event or important occasion, don’t try too hard to “fit the bill” perfectly. Instead, remember that fashion is very personal. Take into account what is appropriate or expected of a situation, but don’t feel completely constrained by those expectations. Instead, bring your personality with you in your style choices.
An heirloom piece that is just offbeat enough to start a conversation. A personalized lapel pin that reminds you of your family. Or a suit that, although it isn’t perfect, allows you to feel comfortable and confident while meeting with your client. So long as it speaks to who you are, don’t worry about whether it is the “perfect” choice.
As the great Thelonius Monk said, “There are no wrong notes. Some notes are just more right than others.”