Respect the professional relationship

Bradley Hoffman

Up until about the age of 16, or when we find our first job, two kinds of relationships exist for us: completely familiar, like friends and family, and wholly unfamiliar, like a passing stranger on the street.

Friends and family relationships share a nearly identical dynamic, at least for most of us. There are things we tell our friends that we would never mention to our parents, but we hardly modify our behavior from one set to the other.

To familiarity’s extreme opposite, we have the stranger relationship. This relationship is most noticeably marked by its complete lack of interaction. We might awkwardly lock eyes for a split-second or offer a faint, unanswered, “How are you?,” but the relationship lasts only as long as five or six footsteps.

Then, there is the professional relationship. Though it doesn’t fully exist at this point, we’re getting a taste of it during our interactions with such people as teachers, pastors and, doctors. But its limitations on what is, and is not, appropriate do not become truly prevalent until your time spent in these relationships replaces all the time previously spent out of it — when you get a job.

This gray field of what’s socially acceptable behavior is as complex and stifling as a hundred pages of fine print. Managing a professional relationship day by day is not a terribly difficult thing to do, but over time the blandness of the whole thing gets…boring.

At first, you make little compromises. Like saying “very” to intensify an adjective instead of “damn,” like you’re used to. Everyone says, “That was a very good idea” now. “Very… damn.” Who cares? Just let me have the job.

Then, you have to start anticipating how others might interpret your words. This is a bit more invasive of a compromise when you realize how insane some people are. Huge leaps in judgment can be made based on the least opinionated statement.

You soon discover there are whole aspects of your personality not deemed acceptable in the workplace, and you have to mask a lot of what you believe. Navigating the complexities of workplace norms makes you more obedient the better you get at it.

I once worked in a large office building for a large corporation and whenever higher-ups from the company would visit from HQ or wherever, we would have to dress up extra nice by wearing a tie and jacket. The whole effect was like church – be presentable in the presence of the lord. And what killed me the most was that I never saw these higher-ups. The whole week they were there, their visit constraining my throat with a necktie, I never met them or even saw them. But they controlled the way I was dressing.

I’m not saying, “Don’t work in an office,” but I do want people to think for themselves. If the environment you’re in makes you uncomfortable and you hate it, it doesn’t mean you need to try harder.

I’m sure I sound paranoid to some, worrying about neckties and not being able to curse during the work day. These are small compromises that, alone, amount to nothing more than an effort to not offend co-workers.

But, to me, these little compromises represent a greater culture of consent that eases its way into our work life and can lead to a very passive outlook on life overall. If you witness something at work you would normally object to outside of work, but then reason to yourself, “What am I thinking, this is work time, I can’t say ‘No’ to that,” then that’s what I’m afraid of.

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