Professionals or people?

We spend a lot of time trying to pass ourselves off as professionals

Published : 14 May 2022 09:45 PM | Updated : 14 May 2022 09:47 PM

Covid-19 has forced many of us to learn to work in dramatically different ways and to learn new terms. Whoever thought that we would be calling in-person meetings “offline”? Or that the issue of muting ourselves inappropriately—not doing it when we should, forgetting to unmute ourselves before we speak—would become a major factor in meetings?

On the one hand, it’s been delightful seeing the mishaps others suffer. It is enjoyable particularly during a high-level meeting or important seminar to see a dog jump on one of the participants, or their child totter up to the camera and stare at the computer, or the typical cat languidly walking past right in front of someone’s face. Such incidents make everyone seem more, well, human. On the other hand, it can range from amusing to embarrassing when we are the ones to whom such mishaps occur.

One day while I was hosting a live online talk show with interns from the Asian University for Women, my cat Ginger suddenly decided that he needed attention. He manifested that need in his usual fashion: by biting my ankles. There I am, trying to come across as a smooth professional discussing interesting topics with my enlightened interns, while jumping up and down in my chair, yelping and cursing. When I tried to evict him from my home, he scratched me, which hurt. I finally got rid of him and tried to settle back down. Just as I put my earphones back on, I heard an intern say, “And that’s my opinion,” waiting for my response. But I’d missed most of what she said. Worse, I realized I had once again forgotten to mute myself and thus had probably treated the entire audience to the stream of obscenities I’d uttered while chasing the cat around my kitchen.

I apologized profusely to the interns afterwards. One of them laughed and said that it was actually positive; they were gaining insight into my life. After all, we all have home lives and occupations beyond our professional persona. The same intern had commented during the talk show about how we’re not robots; we should not be expected to work all the time.

This all made me reflect. 

We spend a lot of time trying to pass ourselves off as professionals. We try to assume a certain unbroken façade—which admittedly comes easier for some than for others. For many years I was in awe of the ability of some of my friends to appear so professional, to command such respect. To be honest, I wondered if I would ever be able to achieve the same polish.

It would be easier to work out a better balance between our personal 

and professional selves if we were more open in the first place that it is 

an issue requiring tailored solutions for different workplaces and individuals

Then, somewhere along the line, I decided, “To heck with it!” I was going to be who I am. Certainly when I am engaged in public speaking I try to be eloquent and articulate; I also keep a cloth with me to wipe the sweat off when the heat overwhelms me. Since I work so much with young people, I prefer to come across as friendly and approachable, not awe-inspiring and remote. It also allows my creativity and energy to shine through my clearly not flawless surface.

There have been two lessons for me. First, youth in particular enjoy being around people who do not follow the rules, who are openly friendly, and who do not hide behind their professional façade. Second, it’s much easier to excel at your job if you are able to utilize rather than suppress your personality.

But I think there’s another aspect to this that my intern was hinting at when she said that we are humans, not robots. We set up an impossible bar for people, particularly women, to reach when we ask people to abandon their personal lives in the workplace. Sure, a certain degree of separation is expected. But when women are expected to balance their work and home responsibilities without ever showing the strain, there will be a heavy toll to which many men are oblivious. Working from home can be both more difficult and easier when you have home responsibilities: more time and access can both make it easier to carry out those responsibilities and harder to erect the sort of barrier that allows you to get your office work done.

Removing the expectation of perfection would also make it easier to acknowledge that all of us, being human, make mistakes—and thus to establish systems to deal with those errors, rather than assume that if we just try harder we can become infallible.

Finally, I wonder about the message we’re sending to young people when we suggest that their goal is to become impeccable professionals able to completely separate their personal and professional lives and to juggle all duties seamlessly. 

I suspect that such expectations cause undue stress that, again, tends to have a disproportionate effect on women. It would be easier to work out a better balance between our personal and professional selves if we were more open in the first place that it is an issue requiring tailored solutions for different workplaces and individuals.In the meantime, our laughter at people’s accidental moments of humanity shining through will continue to serve as a healthy reminder that yeah, others are facing the same kinds of difficulties that we are.

Debra Efroymson is Executive Director, Institute of Wellbeing (Bangladesh). She is the author of the book “Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing”