While stopped on a side street and waiting to enter the flow of traffic, I began to muse on a conversation with POB Editor Perry Trunick regarding the “trappings of authority.” Land Surveyors are either granted the right of access to neighboring properties through governmental authority, or they are not. This, of course, varies from state to state. But, as Perry noted, the appearance of authority is a far more consistent rule.

William Shakespeare penned “… the apparel oft proclaims the man,” and perhaps because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mark Twain later wrote, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I started to wonder if clothes might, in fact, make the surveyor or at least afford them a bit of authority. I considered donning my orange vest to determine what control it might give me to stop oncoming traffic long enough to pull into the intersection. Discretion is, however, the better part of valor, and I instead waited my turn.

Trappings of Authority

Does appearance matter? It certainly does for law enforcement. Most people will not only immediately recognize a uniformed police officer but will freely comply with instructions they give. Criminals usually cease their behavior when they spot a uniformed officer. Parents often teach their children to trust a person in a police uniform. And, even drivers approaching an intersection occupied by a uniformed officer usually willingly submit to that person’s hand directions. How does an uncomfortable polyester uniform afford so much respect?

The Social Significance of Clothing

When encountering someone for the first time, we unconsciously search for social cues from their appearance. Clothing is among the most powerful of those visual measures and serves as a shortcut to determine a person’s gender, age, social status, group membership, occupation, and even their authority. Research has shown that clothing and appearance are more important in forming first impressions than personality. This is particularly true in situations where the duration of the contact is relatively short.

The uniform of a law enforcement officer has a significant social impact on the general public. Good or bad, it often elicits reactions and conclusions about the officer, their intentions, motivations, and authority. A police uniform serves as a very public reminder that the state vests the individual wearing it with the power of arrest and the use force when necessary.

What, if anything, does the “uniform” of the average land surveyor communicate? Does our appearance convey to the general public that we too are vested with authority and the public trust, or are we an unkempt stranger wandering around their backyard?

Obedience to Authority

In the 1960s, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram did a research study on obedience. Milgram’s volunteer research subjects believed they were participating in a study about the effects of punishment on learning. They were given the role of teacher and told that their task was to help another subject like themselves learn a list of word pairs. When the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to give them an electric shock by flipping a switch. The teachers were given a very mild shock to demonstrate what the learner would experience along with an explanation that the intensity of the shock would be increased with each failure to answer correctly until reaching a potentially dangerous level. 

In truth, the learner was not a subject of the experiment but Milgram’s assistant. Although he pretended to be in pain when the shocks were administered, he never actually received an electric shock. The experiment was devised not to test the effects of punishment on learning, but to discover to what degree the “teachers” would obey authority.

Milgram found that a full two-thirds of the “teachers” administered the highest level of shock, despite believing that the learner was suffering great pain and distress. He discovered that certain factors served to increase obedience. Commands given by someone perceived to be an authority figure rather than merely another volunteer were more likely to be followed. Variations included an authority in a white lab coat present in the room, an authority without the white lab coat, on down to an authority figure who was not present in the room with the teacher (a voice on an intercom).

In another study, Dr. Leonard Bickman developed an experiment to test the inherent authority of the police uniform. A research assistant was instructed to stand on the street and ask passersby to either pick up a paper bag, give a dime to a stranger, or move away from a bus stop. The research assistant was alternately dressed in casual civilian clothes, a milkman’s uniform, or a grey, police-style uniform. Upon completion, it was found that 19 percent obeyed the civilian and 14 percent the milkman. Interestingly, although he never represented himself as a law enforcement officer, a full 38 percent of people followed the instructions when the assistant wore the grey police-style uniform.

It seems evident that a white lab coat or a police-style uniform conveys a clear message before the wearer even opens their mouth. Returning to an earlier question, what then does our appearance say about us, and what assumptions do our clients and abutting landowners make based upon the image we present? Believe it or not, the assorted accouterments of a surveyor carry a bit of weight in the community at large.

Power of the Orange Vest

An amusing example of this very thing can be found on the popular YouTube channel, “Just for Laughs, Gags.” One of the more entertaining videos is their “Fake Surveyor Prank,” where passersby are enlisted to assist an official-looking surveyor type by holding a level rod. While the surveyor is fussing about behind the instrument, a van stops briefly between the surveyor and the “victim” blocking the view. When the van pulls away, with the surveyor hidden inside, a similarly dressed life-size dummy now occupies his position behind the instrument. The rod-person is left holding the level rod for an indefinite period while the “surveyor” stands motionless behind the instrument. The subjects eventually walk away or discover the ruse.

It is remarkable how many people not only comply with the request for assistance but continue to do so even with no communication from the surveyor. It’s highly likely that the legitimacy suggested by the widely recognized “uniform” of an orange vest and hard hat is a key contributor to their willingness to accept the task. Though I’ve not asked the question, I suspect a majority of people when asked what a typical surveyor looks like would describe someone dressed very much like the fellow in the prank.

Practical Examples

I was recently hired to assist in the redevelopment of an area notorious for its drugs, vandalism, and criminal activity. Local law enforcement routinely patrols the neighborhood to prevent incidents before they happen. Throughout the week, I had been all around the area marking and setting survey control and had seen the same police officer drive through several times. We acknowledged each other with a nod but never spoke.

On one very hot day, I decided to shed my customary orange vest for the afternoon and mark a few additional property corners. As I strolled down the sidewalk wearing a machete on my belt and shaking a can of spray paint, the same police officer I had been nodding to on previous days came around the corner. He slowed the car and rolled down his window and inquired about my intentions. He had noticed all of the “weird graffiti” on the sidewalks and wanted to make sure things were legitimate. It was evident that he did not recognize me as the same individual he had nodded to on previous occasions without my vest. As he never stopped me while I was wearing it, I can only assume that it gave me an air of credibility that I lacked without it.

Does Clothing Make the Surveyor?

What then does this mean? Should we dress in three-piece suits while in the field or wear our vests to church? You can dress as you wish, but this is one surveyor who won’t be doing either. We simply have to look the part.

Knocking on an abutting landowner’s door in a tuxedo is just as suspicious as doing so wearing ripped jeans, a bandanna, and muddy boots. For better or worse, we have expectations of strangers and social situations based upon how they present themselves. Anything outside of the expected norm, like searching for property corners in a suit or demanding entry while wearing a paramilitary uniform, is likely to be met with suspicion. At best, we can expect a lengthy question and answer session, at the worst outright refusal to cooperate.

As Perry noted, “the appearance of authority is a far more consistent rule.” I want to alter his statement a bit to read, “The appearance of legitimacy is a far more consistent rule.” Land surveyors may be granted the right of access under the authority of their state government, but it is up to us to express the legitimacy of our actions and duties to our clients, abutting landowners, and the general public.

Not limited to dress, this also includes our mannerisms, verbal, and written communication, and even body language. As previously related, a machete is relatively standard-issue equipment for land surveyors in my area. How might an abutting landowner perceive the situation when I ring the doorbell and stand just feet from the door sporting a machete, sunglasses, and a ball cap? Contrast this to removing the glasses, hat, and machete, ringing the bell, and stepping away from the door with a business card at the ready. Which scenario seems more likely to invoke cooperation?

An orange vest does not a surveyor make. Nor does the lack of one provide evidence of one’s competence. However, being aware of our actions, dress, and appearance can make things much more manageable. It’s infinitely simpler to gain access to neighboring properties through kindness, professionalism, and the appearance of legitimacy than it is through enforcement of a statute.