Guess what? Braids and big hoop earrings are back! For men! Still wearing a man bun? Get with it, would you?
I was walking behind a man in a crowded shopping center who had the sides of his head shaved, but what remained on the top was long and braided, hanging down the center of his well-inked back. The tattoos had a red and green floral theme and looked vaguely Japanese. He was wearing a muscle T-shirt, even though he was pretty much muscle-free. The last weight he lifted had a pop-top.
He was with a very attractive woman roughly his own age, and all I could think was, “What a catch, girlfriend! Was it love at first sight?”
People say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s not true. People judge books by their covers all the time. That’s what the cover is for. If you picked up a book with a picture of a spaceship and an alien on it, and it turned out to be a Victorian bodice-ripping romance, you’d feel scammed. One of the interesting things that happened when people started reading books on electronic devices was that the sales of romance novels went way up. It seems a lot of their readers were embarrassed to be seen reading them, even though they liked them. On Kindle, no one knows what you’re reading.
The media analyst Tony Schwartz once wrote, “A message is not what is sent, it is what is received.” We are all sending messages all the time. For instance, the way we take care of our lawn -- or don’t -- sends a message about us. It says that we are neat freaks or slobs, or fussy or creative or traditional or radical. The clothes we wear send a message. The type of car we drive sends a message.
Sometimes we realize we’re sending a message, sometimes we don’t. Red convertibles, Harley motorcycles, SUVs and minivans all send different messages. It’s why your teenager doesn’t want to be seen in your car. It’s not the message they want to send.
What does smoking a cigarette say about you? A cigar? A pipe? Drinking wine or drinking beer? What brand? These are all messages, and we are very good at interpreting most of them. Haven’t you ever seen someone’s outfit and thought, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!” Why? Because the message they think they are sending is not the one that you are receiving.
What is the message of a tattoo? No one is hiding them these days; they want you to see them. So, what is the main quality of a tattoo? Art? Maybe, but if you’re that into art, you could buy something and hang it on your wall. No, the main message of a tattoo is that it’s permanent. The message is, “I am never going to change my mind about this.” It’s why so many men used to get their girlfriends’ names tattooed on their arms. It said “commitment” in a way a ceremony and a ring didn’t.
That’s a powerful message. It’s also why so many of us cringe when we see teenagers with tattoos. Because we do change our minds as we grow. We do see the world differently as we age. And maybe that “Heather Forever” tattoo wasn’t such a great idea now that you’re dating a girl named Monica.
So what message is the guy with the braid and the earrings sending? Here’s the odd thing: He’s trying to blend in. Not with me, but with his tribe. As we all are. The message he is sending is to a group of people who are just like him. Neo-punks or crypto-gamers or who knows what, but some group that “understands him,” which means they understand his messages.
It would be easy to say he’s looking for attention, but just like someone wearing a sweatshirt with the name of their favorite football team, this guy is just proclaiming his tribe. Bumper stickers, haircuts, glasses, hats and hobbies all proclaim our tribes.
It’s just that some tribes are smaller than others.
(Contact Jim Mullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)