The Dress-Suit Bribe

November 17, 2010

There’s a theme in the works of Upton Sinclair called the “dress-suit bribe” which he returns to over and over. It’s the the name of a play written by a character in Dragon’s Teeth, a throwaway line in his essay Mammonart, and called out as a corrupting force in his expose on the American university system. But it’s mostly clearly defined in a chapter of The Brass Check on how good people get turned around. It goes something like this:

You pay a shoeshine $5 to shine your shoes. But do you know what you got paid to have your shoes shined? You might buy a suit for $500, but do you know how much you get paid to be well-dressed? Or to drive a nice car, to shave and get your hair cut a certain way, to orient your life around an arbitrary schedule of this hour to this hour for this many days a year?

The dress-suit bribe works particularly well because it doesn’t seem like a bribe. People can’t say no, because it wasn’t directly proffered so much as sublimated inside ordinary things. Think about the first nice business lunch someone took you to. This was the offer. How long did it take you to work your way back up to sitting in a chair at that same restaurant for a purely social occasion? This was when you took the bribe.

Forget answering: my salary is ________. This is about all the little things that you think are your preferences but were actually given to you like gifts. People like nice things so they’ll lease themselves the car it becomes OK to have. People want to be recognized so of course they’ll join you at the right events and press flesh with the right folks. People need to be responsible so they’re going to save up for a down payment on a house. It is, after all, an investment. When I was younger I didn’t realize that these acts were bridges, and that there would come a time where you were pressured to cross them. And that in many cases, it wasn’t clear that you’d done so until after you were on the other side.

What Sinclair meant to provoke with his question was an understanding that seemingly benign decisions trigger commitments to larger ideas than we might imagine. In the case of something like a mortgage they are literal contracts that require decades of a very particular kind of lifestyle. Which should explain the forces that act on a person to ring that bell.

On the lower rungs of the system, we can clearly see the relationship between service and payment—like in the case of a shoeshine. However our own position in the scheme remains in a fog of rationalization and unintentional obfuscation. The things we have to do as employees, as a member of a class, as a certain type of professional are tacit extracurricular duties that not only coincide with the amount in our paychecks but make us dependent on getting one every week. If we really calculated this labor, we’d realize it not only wasn’t cheap but if we stripped away the illusions, we’d see that we weren’t asked very nicely if we felt like doing them. They were as mandatory as wearing a uniform and saying “Yes, sir, let me know if I can get your anything else.”

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

50 responses to The Dress-Suit Bribe

  1. ….the best thing that I’ve seen you write.

  2. Being around the environment that assumes a certain upper level of dress, manner, “class”, absolutely begins to infect your thinking, preferences, and eventually which philosophies to adopt or reject. If you like the environment and can afford it, great. But If you’re in it and poor, or tend to strive for broader philosophical/iifestyle goals that aren’t really compatible with that environment…it kind of sucks. Example:

    I worked at a high end clothing store for a year. I was resolute in my desire to remain thrifty and use the money I made for only basic overhead and a few books or music or whatever. After a year I had done well with my resolution…but I felt horrible and had definitely made a few purchases that in retrospect, were kind of dumb and pointless. Why did I feel horrible? I had made friends in that environment who could afford a lot more leisure and activities than I could, I was around women who were into guys that made more money and valued the same material stuff as they did, and generally speaking…the people were pretty ingrained in the system and excepted it. It takes a toll on the psyche. I worked there to get money to simply spend my time operating OUTSIDE of work, putting effort into whatever things I personally felt good about, creative stuff, etc. That takes a bit of determination, resolution to operate on the outside, and to adopt a non-distraction, anti-short term pleasure/hedonistic mindset.

    Its hard…but the best way to go about life independently without getting distracted by the material nonsense is to find a job (or place where you spend most of your hours) that doesn’t already embody a culture that overvalues it. (this advice might only apply to a few, but whatever. Sorry for length.)

    Good post dude.

    • Yep spot on. Know what that’s about. We can easily spend most of our lives trying to maintain an image that we feel obliged to maintain but for what? why? was that a conscious choice? Or were we lured into it?

  3. I just ran into this notion the other day. A friend was given an old (yet large TV) and is planning on buying a new (and large) TV, because he says he has become so accustom to it. Makes sense, but, and I think this is your point, the acceptance of the 1st TV tied him to a lifestyle that he was consciously committed to. And this is someone who “isn’t materialistic”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the act, since the manipulation was self-imposed yet unconsciously decided. Perhaps we should keep a better guard one what we agree to do. Or better yet, strip items down to what they actually represent, and why we cherish them so.

  4. Good post. Another one I like to think of, that is especially dangerous, is student debt. Think of how much debt one acquires by going to college (especially if they don’t graduate in 4 years, which is common). The real hustle here is that student debt is a bitch to get rid of. Even if you file bankruptcy the debt is still there. Most people, if they do manage to graduate, will not end in a great career. They’ll most likely be a bartender, waitress, etc. It takes a long time to pay off thousands of dollars in debt while working as a bartender, all for a few years of drinking at some distant location. Talk about a major commitment.

  5. Damn good post. Thanks for this.

  6. Great post. I did not realize this until I was 40. By 40, many of the mistakes had been made. I have spent the last seven years righting the wrongs. Life is better now. I’m glad I ran across your blog. Keep it up. Thanks………..

  7. I’m so happy to have found your blog – via Tim Ferriss.
    This post is exactly what my husband has gone through for the past few years – the lifestyle behind the corporate high-life, which doesn’t resonate with his surfer ethics…

    Your posts have re-invigorated in me my love for philosophy – but I’m starting to see it’s all philosophy though, right???
    (and by ‘all’ I mean ‘every thought that is written’)

    • You’re right. It is all philosophy.

      The only people who don’t want you to think that are the ones who get to teach it for a living in a classroom.

  8. Ryan – Good post. Simple, subversive. You’re way ahead of the game than me. I have to admit that I came to the same conclusions when I reached my 48th birthday. (I’m a slow leaner). My own tale is that I’ve made and lost a lot of money, and am now making lots again and I’ve , almost, repaid the massive debts I had. But having lost almost everything, it puts a very different perspective on things; the people you meet, the friends you have, or had, and the commitments you sign up to. There are very few things you really need to sign up to, and each one of those you can name, hug, caress, or drink with. The rest is just timewasting scenery.

    But just one thing. You may be right, but I detect a tone in your post that makes me worried about you. I’ve never met you, and never will, but there’s a bitterness in your posts that is worrying.

    Take care of yourself kid.

  9. Excellent post Ryan. I’ve been working my wading my way through this notion for about 8 months now and this is one of the best ways i’ve seen it described.

    “People like nice things so they’ll lease themselves the car it becomes OK to have. People want to be recognized so of course they’ll join you at the right events and press flesh with the right folks. People need to be responsible so they’re going to save up for a down payment on a house.”

    What I read is, “these are my interests at this time”

    “However our own position in the scheme remains in a fog of rationalization and unintentional obfuscation.”

    What I read is, “this is why i think these are my interests.”

    If we hold all external pressures/forces constant, aren’t we all just practising a form of cognitive bias?

    My question is, putting yourself in this situation, what is your personal process of determining which ‘bridges’ you should cross?

    • You’re starting from a false premise–that I took my own situation and translated it into the second person. I’m not. This is simply what happens when you get a well-paying job. It doesn’t matter what the industry, what the generation, or really, even how much you’re making.

      There’s a reason that Sinclair wrote about it in like 5 vastly different books. Journalists are offered the dress suit bribe, professors are offered it, stay at home moms are offered it, soldiers are offered it, et al.

      For instance, I mentioned that there is pressure to cross the bridge that is buying a house. Think I’m exaggerating? What happened when the speculative real estate market fell to pieces? The entire world economy felt the effects. Why? Because they’d all been roped in.

      If need an analogy, it’s kind of like how a gang will force a new member to commit a serious crime in order to tie them into the group.

      • Thanks for replying. I didn’t mean to sound as if I was assuming you wrote this piece from personal experience.

        You took what I’d been struggling with a summarised it in less than 600 words. Regardless of the derivation of this piece, I was trying to imply that you, myself, and nearly everyone else can relate to these kinds of pressures. Just that, many of us are just not very good at defining them or recognising them during the act.


  10. My spouse and I are were just discussing this very thing over a quiet dinner last week: in what ways have we “opted-in” without realizing it, without having ever been asked, without ever consciously choosing it.

    In some ways, this realization becomes more poignant if you don’t have kids, because many people who have children don’t need to look too closely at this as they figure they want to opt-in for their kids’ sake anyway — and give their kids the choice to decide whether they want to buy-in to the status quo when they’re old enough. Totally understandable. Without kids, however, it’s a bit more eerie to realize that you may have bought into something that doesn’t nourish your soul.

    • As a parent, I think the choices we make in these matters require even closer consideration.

      What am I giving my kids? If the answer is “financial advantages” that’s fine, but then what’s the cost? Most likely it means less time with them, fewer opportunities to learn from one another, and possibly even giving them the false belief that the money I earn “for” them, is more important to me than they are.

      On the other hand, if I’m giving my kids as much of my time as I can, embracing opportunities to teach and learn from them, and living a life of charity and good will, what does that cost? Most likely, it will cost you a high paying job – the kind that offers beyond financial security, but affords financial advantages.

      If you think realizing you’ve bought into something that doesn’t nourish your soul is eerie, I invite you to lay awake at night wondering if the choices you’ve made will help the tiny person snoring next to you make the best decisions when it their turn.

      • Of course, if you have people who depend on you, their needs ought to color every decision you make.

  11. This post was a pleasure to read, Ryan. Thanks for your thoughtfulness in writing it.

    For my part, I’ve observed that there are many moments to “opt-in” without realizing it (degrees, possessions, debts, careers, marriage, children), and yet there are also ways to move beyond those decisions without having to turn back entirely.

    For instance, my husband and I have a huge mortgage (this was a tough decision for me because of all the reasons in your post — I was aware that I was following a path that I “should” follow rather than one I really wanted, but I felt swept along). On the bright side, however, that very hefty monthly mortgage payment (and all the furniture we bought along the way) is now being paid for and used by a renter.

    Everyone we know said we were crazy to think we could get someone to pay so much rent. And yet, with faith and determination, we not only found someone to pay “that much rent” — we were actually able to negotiate for a bit more than the listed rent amount! (Another story for another time.)

    My point here is that we took a small intentional divergence rather than a complete reversal — and in that step reclaimed our power and our path. So, to others, take heart. Reversal or retreat may not be required. Capitalization on less than ideal choices is mission possible.

  12. I am a new reader, I heard an interview about your book on CBC radio in Canada and it resonated with me. I have only read this post and your Montaigne post and I am slightly perplexed by the comments people leave. Their testimonies, albeit probably reinforce their autonomy, but this seems to be nothing more than an exercise in empathy. These are positive conversations to have, but when do the conversations start to discuss how to reinvent what is considered virtuous. We cannot just pat ourselves on the back for rejecting the norm. Having this mentality doesn’t build community, it breeds narcissism. I am all for self realization and development, hell I wouldn’t be writing this if I never read Walden, but we can’t become so caught up in our own transformation we lose sight of those behind. I think it is so sad when I hear about Todd being 40 before he thought like this, not saying in anyway it is Todd’s fault, but rather how our system left him behind. We live in an educated society with all the tools available to individuals to help them understand themselves and their place and the system fails people like Todd time and time again. How do we help those people? I suppose as you outline in your book, people will continue to do anything for a dollar.

    a couple of reads I recommend,
    Fame, by Mark Rowlands and Two Ages Kierkegaard

  13. Uhh.. I don’t get it. Sorry I don’t understand what this post is about at all. Why is it called a bribe? I’m confused.

    • same question, requires a bit of elaboration

      Do you mean to say that the unseen cost of a certain type of job is the external ‘appearance’ costs associated with it?

      e.g to be a investment banker, you have to dress a certain way, have your hair a certain way, project a certain type of imagery with your choices, which quickly escalate from small decisions into bigger sunk costs?

      [found your blog by way of tim ferriss and the travel article, great stuff]

      • Yes that’s exactly what it means. But the emphasis is more on the bigger sunk costs.

        Getting your shoes shined is not that expensive. BEING the kind of person who now NEEDS to shine their shoes? A little more costly.

  14. I agree with the whole idea of the “dress suit bribe” in this post. I’ve experienced a bit of it myself. But I have to point out that the choice not to opt-in to certain life paths is mostly reserved to people of privilege to make that choice. In other words, if you are poor, you will be very willing to take a job that pays well, even if it subtly requires that you also buy a dress suit, etc. Many people won’t have the luxury to turn down that great job, or refuse an acceptance letter to a good college, because these choices hold huge benefits to people who started off on lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, or are desperate for money.

    As for me, I’m currently searching for one of those dress suit requiring jobs, but to hold it temporarily (long enough to build up savings, pay off debt, and come up with some more creative and liberated way to live my life, maybe Tim Ferriss style), and hoping not to get roped too far in… :/

    • That’s the line that everybody tells themselves however. They will only be in the game long enough to save money and they’ll be out. But once you’re in, the opt-ins are still required so you’ll be adding more debt just to keep the job you only took on in order to get out of debt. It’s a trap — for the rich, for the poor, for everyone.

  15. This is the third time I’m reading this. It is finally hitting.

  16. This is so true. And it’s something I could never place a finger on until now. I’ve been feeling this for the last few years. Feeling like I’m trading my life for things that I “should” want but don’t really have a connection to. And the pressures to cross those bridges come at you from all angles. I’ve felt them from work, friends, family, even significant others. Is there any escape from succumbing without alienating everyone who blindly follows this path and does their best to drag you along? I’m sure there is a way, just no easy way.

  17. Their part of the ‘moteasir’ clan. “Would you like some ‘more tea sir?'”

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  19. So much of life is simply a fight to see. This write-up helps to legitimize that truth by painting a picture that hits dangerously close to home. For example, this year I got the raise I wanted, the bump in title, the window office, etc. Six month in, I found myself completely consumed by my work, and utterly self-obsessed. A few days after gathering my thoughts, it hit me all at once. The question that weighed on my mind was “when did I sign up for this?”

    “The devil is in the details.”
    “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
    “Look at your eyes, they’re small in size, but they see enormous things.”

    Forever and ever, Amen.

  20. Interesting article – thanks for writing it. I thought a little bit about the real estate example you provided and how the purchase of a house can be for purely financial reasons but how the root cause of the housing meltdown could have been a dress suit bribe (promoted by government). Clearly, government caused the real estate bubble since without government backing risky mortgages, banks would not have assumed such risky loans themselves. Yet, a house also has intrinsic value, since humans need shelter, so buying a house isn’t necessarily yielding to a dress suit bride and wanting/attempting to profit off of the purchase isn’t necessarily a dress-suite bribe motivation either. The physical characteristics of the property (size, location, etc.) would seem to have a lot more to do with the dress suit bribe.

  21. I’m a woman.
    In college, I spend a lot of time living with 4 other girls in the same room.
    I was kinda poor at the time and I couldn’t afford that many clothes, my priority was food and I wasn’t the type who would feel comfortable wearing heels non-stop either.
    Boy, they bullied me.Like good ‘ol bullies.

    Looking in retrospect, focusing all your efforts in the wrong direction costs you not only your financial resources but it gnaws in the back of your head too.

    These types of fashionistas never have the energy to focus on things that will help them both spiritually and financially, all they care about is how they look and what others believe about how they look.

    Looking around, I find it hard to find women who don’t give a flying unicorn about their “monthly budget” for clothes.
    We care conditioned to buy clothes, makeup anything that would make us beautiful and worthy.

    It kinda sucks to be a woman at times, but I have my perks too.
    I ain’t going to war anytime soon.

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