Tattoos OK for Bikers, Not Businessmen: Study
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By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - New research suggests that people don't mind tattoos--as long as the tattooed person fits certain stereotypes.

Based on observations of reactions to a tattooed stranger, the investigators report that people may be more comfortable with a tattooed person in casual clothes than one whose body art is accented by a suit and tie.

The findings stem from a study in which a man approached people in a shopping mall and asked for help reading a manual, claiming he forgot his glasses. Half of the time, the man had his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal an eight-by-four-inch tattoo of a panther on his left forearm. For the other half of the encounters his sleeves were down, covering the tattoo.

In some cases, the man approached the people while wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers. In other instances, he had donned a shirt and tie, dress slacks and leather shoes.

An observer timed all the interactions and found that people spent an equal amount of time with the man when the tattoo wasn't visible, regardless of his attire. However, when the tattooed man approached people with his sleeves rolled up, people spent markedly less time with him when he wore a suit and tie than when he was dressed casually.

In an interview with Reuters Health, study author Dr. David B. Strohmetz from Monmouth University in New Jersey said that people spent an average of 68 seconds helping the tattooed stranger when he was wearing casual clothing.

However, once he replaced his sweats with a suit and tie, people chose to help him for only an average of 32 seconds--less than half the time as when he was dressed casually.

When the man approached people without his tattoo, they spent an average of 42 seconds helping him with his problem, regardless of his attire.

This is less time than that spent when the stranger wore his casual clothes and showed off a tattoo, Strohmetz noted.

"So just having that tattoo changed how long people interacted with him," he said.

Strohmetz and his colleague Michael P. Moore presented their findings Saturday at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Baltimore.

The amount of time people spent with the stranger may serve as a marker for how comfortable they were around him, the researcher explained.

"If you're not very comfortable interacting with a stranger, you're not going to spend much time doing it," Strohmetz said.

He noted that people may feel less comfortable with a tattooed stranger in a suit because the person represents a so-called "norm violation."

We expect a person wearing a suit to fulfill a certain role in society, Strohmetz said. "Along with (the outfit), there are certain connotations, expectations."

Adding a tattoo--a stereotypical sign of youth and rebellion--to the picture of a man dressed in a suit goes against our expectations, leaving us with no way to understand who this person is and what he represents, Strohmetz added.

The type of tattoo may also have an effect on how people perceive the wearer, Strohmetz said. A panther tattoo may be especially disconcerting, and something more modest may have less of an impact, he noted.

People considering getting a tattoo may want to consider the effect this image could have on their future, Strohmetz said, especially if they enter business or another field where formal dress is required.

Although people could become more used to and comfortable with tattoos on different people over time, for now, the current findings suggest that body art may be a "hindrance," he added.