Language is a tricky affair: not such ‘slippery when wet’ as ‘slippery when used as a protective coating’. We’re all aware of the nightmares of jargon, and the insidious effects of euphemism: when you hear the word ‘review’ does your mind first think ‘excellent, an opportunity to analyse, re-assess and optimise’, or is it closer to ‘mmm, cuts on the way: must ‘review’ the finances when I get home’? It depends on the context, and who said the word ‘review’, but one person’s opportunity can quite easily be another’s crisis. It’s all in the telling.

As someone who tries to go through life with my ears open, it amuses me – admittedly, in a rather dry, wry fashion – that there are two words I hear quite frequently used in offices as examples of what someone is, in someone else’s opinion, failing to be. Those words are ‘professional’ and – more especially – ‘businesslike’. Both have dictionary definitions, of course, although they don’t necessarily help to understand how the words wind up being used in such an accusatory manner. We are all in the building because a) we’re being paid, and b) we’re invoicing people so that we can continue to be paid, aren’t we? If we’re forgetting those little fundamentals, it’s a miracle we remembered to change out of our pyjamas and managed not to put our jacket on inside out. But what do they really mean, and what are we omitting from their definitions that they would gain from including?

Professional has both a very basic meaning – doing something for money (as in ‘the world’s oldest’) – and a more strict one, in the sense of being a member of official professional that comes with qualifications, professional bodies, statements of standards and ethics, and codes of conduct. (As we’ve mentioned before, management isn’t actually a profession in that sense: making it one has implications that go far beyond social cachet and status.) Its more common use is probably a lot closer to the second definition offered by Oxford Dictionaries:

worthy of or appropriate to a professional person; competent, skilful, or assured

Given how many of us find ourselves tackling challenges where we’re strictly speaking unqualified or untrained, it’s surprising that we don’t hear ‘amateur’ used as an insult more often. I can operate a copy of Photoshop, but that doesn’t make me a designer – just competent enough to produce something that fits the immediate purpose.

Interestingly, none of the definitions seem to extend far beyond the individual, their ability and their task-related ability: there’s no suggestion of a context in terms of working relationships or of a social element. You can be highly skilled at what you do (or what you charge for) and an absolute pain to work for or deal with, yet ‘professional’ still fits the bill.

Businesslike seems even more problematic. The Oxford Dictionary’s primary definition:

having or indicating an efficient, practical, and systematic approach to one’s work or a task

has a rather more firm suggestion of nuts, bolts and cost centres and the removal of anything that might constitute a ‘frill’. Its sample usage – “his brisk, businesslike tone” – reinforces the point.

The party political basis of the following quote is not our intention – I include it as an example of what ‘business-like’ can exclude from process, debate and interaction – but US historian Clinton Rossiter once gave the follow ‘compare and contrast’ model:

A gathering of Democrats is more sweaty, disorderly, offhand, and rowdy than a gathering of Republicans; it is also likely to be more cheerful, imaginative, tolerant of dissent, and skillful at the game of give-and-take. A gathering of Republicans is more respectable, sober, purposeful, and businesslike than a gathering of Democrats; it is also likely to be more self-righteous, pompous, cut-and-dried, and just plain boring.”

Other definitions make the word positively unattractive:

  • earnest or severe (Collins English Dictionary)
  • practical; unemotional (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • capable but unenthusiastic (Random House Dictionary)

Leaving that final definition aside for a moment, I was reminded of a former boss – and more particularly about his leaving party. He was a University Registrar: the job requires an authoritative grasp of an immense library of regulations, protocols and guidelines and a firm hand in ensuring their implementation and other people’s compliance. There are many legal responsibilities in the role, as well as those relating to internal governance: late delivery of student information to the Community Charge authorities, for example, would mean personal responsibility for every student’s tax liability. An earnest, practical and methodical approach was therefore very much on the agenda.

As the administrative hub of the University, however, the role also requires the skilful handling of an organisation-wide network of working relationships. And therein lay the rub. A man whose encyclopaedic knowledge of an immense body of regulatory documentation (and capability of interpretation of it) would have in any case inspired respect chose instead to take an interpersonal line that saw respect as something to be very much demanded, even when it already been both earned and supplied.

While his input and guidance was something that would always be appreciated, his presence was always dreaded. The letter of the law was followed meticulously and with immense care: its spirit – and the spirit of pretty much anything else – was almost entirely absent.

To mark his retirement after many years of diligent stewardship, we felt duty bound to organise a suitably grand leaving do. At which point our relationship with him changed completely. Wanting much of this to be a surprise, we made contact with his wife, who supplied us not just with a stream of anecdotes, milestones and key events, but also with a sight of the human being. At the event itself, once he had recovered from the surprise of being greeted by nearly 500 people, he surprised us all by speaking movingly about his life, his ambitions and dreams – fulfilled or otherwise – and how much he had appreciated so many different aspects of the people he had worked with for so long. An event many of us had attended out of a sense of duty left many of us with a distinctly damp eye.

The following day, back in the office, the talk was predominantly sad: not sad that he had gone, but that he hadn’t felt able to be that warm and open – as well as competent, assured and capable – while he was performing a role it also turned hadn’t ever really been his wish. Had that been different, we might not (as his team) have been able to help him change career, but we would like to have felt he might have gained more pleasure from the career he had. We hadn’t, to return to Clinton Rossiter, wanted him to be sweaty or rowdy, but cheerful and imaginative would have been a bonus. And not an unprofessional one.

We, in our turn, might have performed our supporting roles more gratefully and willingly: some of us might have had more confidence in our own abilities had we had that positive feedback before it came too late to provide any meaningful boost. The office might, perhaps, have been a little less like “The Office”: and chances are we would have been a little more productive too, had we not been firmly (and not necessarily that politely) encouraged to perform within the parameters of a rather narrow definition of ‘business-like’. As an outfit, we’d been so heavily starched and pressed, the flexibility had been entirely surrendered.

We might also have felt rather more engaged. A University should surely be an encouraging environment, even for those who are there to file the enrolment forms and keep the exam board minutes up to date: enforcers can take pride in the things their enforcement is intended to serve. The wrong kind of ‘businesslike’ can spread a chill where a warmth might be more desirable, as US writer Upton Sinclair once observed:

It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without pretence at apology, without the homage of a tear.”

The words come from a 1906 novel (based on undercover work undertaken in 1904), The Jungle, that inspired Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Beef Inspection Act. The pigs (and abattoir workers) now have improved conditions, of course, although interestingly the book remains in print to this day – perhaps to remind us that there is still more to work than machinery and applied mechanics. (Oddly, Google has just enlightened me that a few days ago, Joan Collins listed it as ‘The Last Book I Read’ in the Spectator’s Book Club.) And perhaps also that there is more to ‘businesslike’ than watching the numbers and taking your eye off the people that are helping to achieve them.

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