The professional myth

I remember getting ready for my first big job interview in the city. I researched, I prepped, I practiced in front of the mirror and above all, I scoured every shop on the high street looking for the perfect outfit that would make me look professional. I brushed up on my biggest words because I knew they would be seen as professional. I spoke in my most eloquent manner, the Northern twang I’d acquired growing up on the streets of Newcastle dropped for received pronunciation because I knew it would make me more professional. Hair scrapped back in a tight bun, my usual long nails cut short, I marched into the imposing glass building that towered above me, a beacon of professionalism, got the job and very swiftly took my place in the corporate world.

In my youth and naivety, I played my professional role exceptionally well because I am if anything, a classic over-achiever. I wore the right outfits, conducted myself in the correct manner, worked too many hours and nearly broke my back in a bid to be the most professional professional that ever graced a Liverpool Street office. It wasn’t until one evening at a work event, the kind that is full of alcohol and tiny tiny bites of food that are apparently only suitable for the Borrowers and babies, that I watched the veneer of professionalism slowly slide off everyone’s face and true personalities came out to play. Ties loosened to leave necks bare and heels came off in favour of flat shoes because actually, stuffing your feet into stilettoes for twelve hours a day to march around a carpeted office floor is in fact agony. Suit jackets are abandoned, shirt buttons undone and in doing so there seems to be a literal and metaphorical exhale of breath as we all begin to be ourselves. Honest opinions trickled out, slowly at first and then all at once. The most PC people in the office said the most outrageous things and the swearing from everyone coloured the air every shade of blue.

As if trapped in a fairy tale, midnight struck, people ran for the last tube and suddenly the magic disappeared as we once more stuffed ourselves back into ties and tights to don our professional faces and start the day again. We call it ‘professionalism’ and we believe in it with all our hearts.

At the very least, we buy into it, that is until we realise that perceived professionalism is actually a code of conduct that keeps you in a certain club and has nothing to do with your ability to do your job and do it well. What professionalism actually is, is a subtle method of control. A stringent ‘one way of doing things’ and a stubborn refusal to change.  It’s a set of behaviours and rules that keeps a huge group of people in their place without disturbing a capitalist structure that is made, and benefits, a specific racial, socio-economic background. It is a safety blanket in a changing world. It is an abdication of having to evolve or iterate. Above all, it’s a myth we have spent too long maintaining.

Over the course of my career, and especially since starting up my own business, I have been told I’m not professional because I get too passionate about things, swear too much, especially for a lady, and because I am too free with my opinions and candid when I speak. But after playing the professional game for so long and being utterly miserable by its constraints, I am staging my own reclamation of myself.

My desire to litter my essays with swear words does in no way impact my ability to market a company or brand, my insistence on being wholly myself in and outside the office doesn’t change how hard I work, and my candid nature doesn’t affect my ability to produce results. The reality is, I don’t want to work in a world that doesn’t value honesty, celebrate individual personalities and shake of archaic traditions that have bound us for too long. I’m looking for the dirty humanness in us all. I’ve no interest in the ice-cold façade of professionalism we’ve layered over everything at the sacrifice of our own selves.

I’m building a business that is in the business of human nature, with all its contradictions and uncomfortable opinions, and I’m dedicated to telling true stories, the ones packed full of chaotic emotion. As I continue down this path what I’m learning is that people are more afraid than ever to let go of the safety of ‘professional,’ but that there are more people than ever who are dying to do so.

Salma El-Wardany