Make a professional face. What does it look like? My guess is that your eyebrows are higher, your eyes are more open, and your lips are curled up at the corners into an attentive smile. Your face says you expect to be taken seriously, but you are also a cheerful person. You look as neutral as possible, but your face is active. At a moment’s notice you could be called upon to furrow your eyebrows (you understand the gravity of the situation), or to grin with teeth exposed (progress has been made), or to purse your lips (an obstacle to be overcome).
As we go through the interview process, or when we work at a job or internship, we are reminded to “act professionally,” often without being told what that means. It is a neat and conservative manner of dress. It is a format for how to send emails. It is a culture that asks us to regulate our interactions with other people. While professionalism, like many of the –isms we encounter, is hard to define in a sentence, each of us has internalized its meaning. It is so ingrained in us that we know how to make a “professional face”—whatever that is—and only then does it seem strange or like an act. Let us restore that strangeness for a moment. Why do people in office environments adopt this particular code of behavior, with its far-reaching expectations in terms of speech, visible emotion, and human encounters? When a friend picks up her phone at work, she does not sound like herself. When we shop for “professional attire,” we go to stores we would never otherwise visit. When we write a professional letter, we often ditch our personal style in favor of “boilerplate.” After years of observing office environments, staged in TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “Damages” or played out in person, we have learned how to switch professionalism on and off so naturally we don’t remember how strange it is.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a professional as “a person that engages in a specified occupation or activity for money.” To be professional is, among other things, to behave in the way that best positions us to earn money. Professionalism takes this behavior to an extreme as a total act of personality, on the same level as a religious or political ideology. Appropriately enough, the term “professional” was first used to describe people taking vows upon entering a religious order. When we shift from “casual” to “professional” modes, we are making a similar transition. Specifically, we move from normal life to carefully monitoring every aspect of our behavior, anticipating how those who might remunerate us would perceive it. In his marvelous essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace argues that the genius of television actors is the ability simultaneously to know they are being watched and act like they are not. Television actors, according to Wallace, achieve a pinnacle of self-consciousness in convincing viewers that they aren’t self-conscious at all. When we practice professionalism, like TV actors, we are highly aware that we are being watched. At the same time, we must pretend not to know, or to feel neutral about it. Neutrality is encouraged because strong emotion disturbs the “professional” ambiance. The object is strict self-control. Even when we are personally called upon to express an opinion in a traditionally professional setting, it requires emotional suppression and enforces neutrality.
My point is not that professionalism is bad. In fact, I mostly agree with Stanley Fish in his article “Anti-Professionalism” that the danger of losing one’s humanity or personality to professionalism is greatly exaggerated. I don’t think there is any sort of ultimate, personal truth at stake. But I think that assuming a “professional” alter ego in an office or work environment carries certain dangers. For one thing, if we must appear neutral and attentive at all times, how can we point out serious wrongdoing? For another, putting on an act drains our energy that might be directed toward other endeavors. Mostly, though, total professionalism—which goes beyond civility—is silly. Parodies from the Dilbert cartoons to “The Office” are spot-on. Startups and younger companies have entirely abandoned traditional professionalism and joke about its keywords like “dynamic” and “synergy.” Professionalism has already become an absurdity. Soon, I think, it will be retired. We would be better advised to focus simply on learning to like ourselves, treating others well, and building on our skills and talents.
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. Senior Citizen, Junior Employee runs alternate Tuesdays.
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