The Concept of Professionalism is Outdated

Something that has annoyed me throughout my career is this so-called "professionalism."

We're told to behave professionally, dress professionally, decorate your office professionally, speak professionally.

Except no one knows what it means. It's an amorphous blob of a concept that no one can put their finger on.

It means "boring, dreary, and monotonous."

Professionalism is an idea exalted by people who love minivans and khaki pants. Until Blue Jeans Friday, when they can really cut loose.

Professionalism seems to only apply to office jobs, not manual labor or fast food. If I showed up to the office wearing a t-shirt with a fast-food logo and a paper hat, I would be sent home to change. If I showed up in mechanic's overalls and a wrench in my pocket, I'd be escorted from the building. Dressing professionally does not mean dressing like any profession, apparently.

My first job after college was, well, at a different college. There, we were told to dress professionally, which meant wearing dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a tie. Ties were considered sacred vestments to my employer and were embraced by people who had no dignity or sense of style.

I should point out that only the men wore ties. This was in the early 1990s when women didn't wear ties unless it was to make a disruptive statement. In which case, they weren't being professional, and the ties were frowned upon.

So, men had to wear ties to be professional, but women were unprofessional if they did.

To protest the bland conformity, I used to buy the most obnoxious, most colorful ties I could find. And I found some eye-poppers.

While my colleagues all wore solid color ties or striped ties their dads wore in the 1970s, I modeled paisley ties, patterned ties, ties that looked like paintings, and even a couple of Jerry Garcia ties. I wore them proudly and loved the looks my bosses gave me because they all wanted to say something about what I wore, but couldn't because I was complying with the dress code.

As an added protest, I grew my hair out until I had an eight-inch ponytail. Don't laugh; I rocked that thing.

Things are different these days. I only own two ties now because I'm a professional writer. A professional writer's standards barely require pants, so I'm certainly not going to put on a soul-choker. I think I've worn a tie twice in the last 13 years, and I did it in secret.

I used to have over 100 ties until my mother-in-law accidentally threw them away during a move. I have never loved her more.

A few years after working at the university, I went to work for my father-in-law, who also made me wear ties. He had the same clenched sense of professionalism that afflicted anyone who worked in an office in the 1970s: No jeans, ties are a must, and you can never, ever be comfortable.

I once asked him if I could paint my office a different color because I was tired of the plain white walls.

"No, because colored walls don't look very professional," he said.

"I'll hang a tie over my desk," I said.

"No, white walls look more professional."

"To who? No one visits us."

I'm proud of my office! It's perfect the way it is.
But my arguments fell on deaf ears, and my office walls continued to pay homage to mayonnaise on a slice of white bread.

I was reminded of all this after some recent discussions about the professionalism of my backdrop on Zoom calls. I work from home, having converted my garage into an office. I have two bookcases filled with books and a typewriter. You can also see my workbench, which I built myself. 

Apparently, this doesn't look very professional, and I could cause more than a few aneurysms in any khaki-wearers on my calls.

Except in the 15th century, "professional" meant an occupation you "professed" to be skilled in. Which means my bookshelves are very professional because they represent the occupation I'm skilled at.

Although I may be stretching it with my prized Bret "The Hitman" Hart Funko Pop figurine.

Professionalism has been shattered, and there's no putting the genie back in his cold, white-walled bottle. For the past two years, people have worked from home, which has destroyed any boundaries between work and personal lives. Our pets pop up on Zoom calls, our kids make noise, and our personal lives intrude on our work between the hours of 8:00 and 5:00.

So the notion of professionalism and white-walled offices are out of fashion. People don't live like that anymore, and we're not going back to it. The cat's out of the bag and sleeping on my desk. People are surrounding themselves with things they like or represent them, and they don't care who sees it.

It's not unprofessional to have a personality. It turns out everyone has one, and it's perfectly acceptable to display it on your Zoom calls. The world won't end, the economy won't collapse, and people won't die because someone showed a tiny little glimpse of their personal life.

If it upsets you too much, then just put on a couple extra ties and stare at your stark white walls until the feeling goes away. We'll be over here getting our work done, like real professionals.

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.