What to wear? Mediator attire in international contexts

Arnaud Guyon, a graduate student in Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Salisbury University (Maryland, USA), recently conducted research into mediators’ attire and how this may affect the dispute resolution process. He has written the below article based on his research and findings to date.

First and foremost, thank you to IMI for helping me gather data by sharing the study link at the end of November; thanks to all respondents that took time to answer to the survey; and finally, thanks to everyone for reading.

What should a mediator wear when conducting a mediation in the Middle East, in Asia, in an African or in a South American indigenous groups tribe? Everyone has heard of “making the first impression”, and beyond the saying, it is an actual proven phenomenon. Clothing can communicate a wide and complex range of information about an individual.

A person’s attire has been shown to convey qualities such as character, sociability, competence and intelligence, with first impressions being formed in a fraction of a second

Howlett et. Al, 2013, p.1

My research examined what a mediator should wear when conducting mediation in international and intercultural contexts.

Moffit and Bordon (2005) argued that the field of dispute resolution has been developed through many disciplines such as law, psychology, ethics, economy, mathematics, game theory, sociology, anthropology, history, journalism, religions and more. However, as much as these fields have contributed to the field of dispute resolution’s evolution and the way we understand it today, a strategy for dealing with something that might be obvious to one discipline might not occur to those in another. Many professions, such as police, nursing staff, lawyers etc., can be identified through their ‘uniforms’ such that employees have guidelines about what is appropriate and expected when working, creating a unique common “in-group” identity that draws a clear distinction from other professions (Furnham et. Al, 2013).  However, no research has examined closely what the expectations are in alternative dispute resolution, and more specifically, in mediation. Using the results of a qualitative survey conducted with international mediators around the globe, I argue that a lack of attention toward clothing in international contexts can impact the parties, can potentially harm the outcome of a mediation, or could stall the process even before it starts.

According to Stulburg (1987), there are twenty characteristics and skills that are required from a mediator. The most recurrent ones are being neutral, impartial, intelligent, flexible, persuasive, empathetic, respected, honest, reliable, and having sense of humor. So then, what is the “ideal” mediator’s attire that would answer to, if not all, most of these characteristics? What message does the mediator’s attire want to convey toward the parties? A challenge for mediators is to integrate different cultural perspectives in order to wear the “ideal” attire for a specific mediation so that his or her appearance will install a trustworthy and comfortable atmosphere in the mediation process.

Furthermore, individuals pay attention to clothing suitability, its fit and color (Howlett et al., 2013). For example, in the cultural context of that research, when a man is formally dressed (suit), it conveys attractivity, intelligence and popularity.  

Formal clothing serves to “obtain respect, signals professionalism, and maintain social distances”

Slepian et al. 2015, p.661

On the other hand, casual wear is more related to intimacy, familiarity, unattractiveness, and being unintelligent and unpopular (Howlett et al. 2013; Slepian et al. 2015).

In the current research, the quality and experience of the mediators that participated in the survey (N=18) brought new elements and shed light on crucial key points when it comes to what a mediator should wear in international and intercultural contexts.

While I did not expect to see any ‘specific’ patterns, the study raised several important questions.

What does ‘neutrality’ mean when it comes to clothing in mediation?

A crucial factor in mediation is to be neutral with parties, and an outfit that respects cultural barriers and conveys neutrality with the first impression can make a difference. Survey respondents were mostly clear on what was comprised by ‘formal’ and ‘business’ attire, but the concept of ‘neutrality’ in an outfit seemed more ambiguous.

“Nothing too flashy or bright. I want to command respect, but not stand out and I don’t want to be judged by my attire, except for people to think it is acceptable.”


“Never really thought about that.”

The most prevalent formal wear included a suit with a tie, including nice pants, a jacket and polished shoes. When asked what their business attire would be, respondents said that they would keep the suit and take the tie off. However, besides taking the tie off, all answers for formal and business attires were similar and didn’t show significant differences. Interestingly, the idea of ‘neutral’ attire, which aims to convey a neutral message through clothes, was associated with no clear dress code when compared to the formal and business answers. Some respondents said that neutral attire would consist of a simple (or casual) shirt, with comfortable slacks, no tie, no jacket and maybe jeans; while some others were really brief (i.e: ‘classical’). One respondent mentioned that she was aware of having an acceptable outfit when working in refugee camps so that she wouldn’t “stand out” both culturally and also as a woman.

That being said, the research argues that even international experienced mediators are unsure what a neutral attire looks like and further research with a bigger sample should be made on that specific point.

What is the role of color?

The second fact that will need further research is the impact of colors when mediating in international contexts, and specifically gender differences. There is plenty of research on how colors can play a role in terms of authority. Could wearing ‘neutral’ colors have a positive impact on the process and on perceptions of neutrality?

Eight out of the eleven women from the survey gave specifics in their answers about what colors they would use in mediation, irrespective of whether the attire is formal, business or neutral:

  1. Beige for most of the women respondents, though black or grey attire may also be ‘neutral’
  2. Not using colors that could identify them as union or management
  3. Wearing something too flashy or bright should be avoided
  4. Not wearing overly loud colors

Specific examples were given of a black dress or skirt, a dark jacket with trousers or skirt, or a black or dark blue dress or suit.

Only two of the seven men mentioned colours, saying that a dark suit is the way to go, along with avoiding flashy colors.

How does clothing affect credibility?

Young and inexperienced mediators tend to wear more formal attire in order to boost their credibility. In mediation, credibility is important so that parties can trust their mediators. A young mediator will counteract the lack of experience through a more formal image, using clothing to enhance his or her credibility.

How does gender affect clothing choice?

Overall, answers showed that women give much more attention to their appearance than men, putting in more effort to look ‘neutral’ along with asserting their credibility. In conjunction with choosing carefully what colors they would wear, women want to show respect and avoid implying anything sexual through their attire, supporting Darmhorst and Reed’s claim (1986) that found differences in how women are judged depending if they are wearing light or dark colors. One international woman mediator said that she is aware to cover herself as much as possible, as well as not showing any cleavage at all when conducting mediation in conservative cultures. Secondly, when asked about accessories wore, women respondents said they are aware to not wear outrageous jewelry.

Morrison et. al authors of Kiss, Bow and Shake Hands (1994) was able to create an entire book on how to conduct business in sixty different countries with specific guidelines to follow to be respectful of the person’s culture on the other side of the table. Why would it be different in mediation? Maybe there is no specific ‘dress code’ to the field of international mediation, but there surely are guidelines to follow depending on which individuals the mediator will be working with.

Interestingly, despite the importance, only one of the survey respondents indicated that the mediator’s appearance was a component of their training.  Given the role attire can play, with competence, confidence, and credibility judged in the first 12 seconds of an interaction (Furnham et al, 2013, p. 1839), workshops and training could be implemented to give as many chances as possible to the mediator to succeed in international and cross-cultural mediation.

Finally, one respondent shared the following comment—share your thoughts!

Having grey hair is a good thing, people want mediators to look wise and older.  Looking older is related to wisdom.


  • Damhorst, M.L. and Reed, J.A.P (1986). Clothing Color Value and Facial Expressions: Effects on Evaluations of Female Job Applicants. Social Behavior and Personality, 14(1), 89-98
  • Furnham, A., Chan, P.S., & Wilson, E. (2013). What to Wear? The Influence of Attire on the Perceived Professionalism of Dentists and Lawyers. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 43, 1838-1850.
  • Howlett, N., Pine, K. & Fletcher, B.C. (2013). The Influence of Clothing on First Impressions: Rapid and Positive Responses to Minor Changes in Male Attire. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. 17, 38-48
  • Moffit, M.L., & Bordon, R.C. (2005). The Handbook of Dispute Resolution. Jossey-Bass
  • Morrison. T.,Conaway, W.A. & Borden, G.A. (1994). How to do Business in Sixty Countries: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. Adams Media Corporation.
  • Slepian, M.L., Ferber, S.N., Gold, J.M, and Rutchick, A.M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 661-668
  • Stulburg, J.B. (1987). Taking Charge/Managing Conflict. Lexington Books.

Arnaud is seeking an internship in Europe for this upcoming summer. Connect with him on LinkedIn via www.linkedin.com/in/arnaud-guyon

About The Author

8 thoughts on “What to wear? Mediator attire in international contexts”

  1. Thank you for sharing, Arnaud – it’s fascinating to consider the neutrality of ‘clothing’, and what contribution attire could make to dispute resolution (or even to being selected as a mediator at all).

  2. Laura, thank you for everything. The research basically argues that a good attire can affect the parties decision to select a mediator; being respectful of one’s culture, showing that we (as a mediator) care about how do we look is important in international contexts. A big cultural mistake in an attire can lead to failure (i.e. refugee camp); whereas a good attire will “only” enhance trust. However, there are many other parameters that will affect that decision (credibility / experience etc..). There are many research on the impact of colors in negotiation, why would it be any different in DR? Any experienced mediator that would give any comment on the topic?