It used to be that the word “Professional” was a positive compliment. However if you observe carefully, the meaning of the word itself have shifted over the years. Nowadays at best it’s a neutral and meaningless compliment, and at worst slightly insulting.
Use this as a test. Imagine you’re at the funeral of a loved one, perhaps a sibling or some sort of younger adult, and another visitor commented that the deceased was professional without any other words of compliment, wouldn’t you take that as somewhat of an insult, or at least very strange? I certainly would.
“He was a kind man.” – Thank you. “He had a great sense of humor.” – Acceptable. “He was very professional.” – Huh?
“Professional” is no longer the proper sort of word you would use in a dignified setting when you’re trying to describe someone as a human being. It’s now awkward to imagine it used in a funeral setting. When did this happen?
To get a better idea, one must first look at when the word “Professional” still had a largely positive meaning. Long or maybe not so long ago, the word “Professional”, when used as a compliment mostly referred to how one conducted themselves in their jobs; whether they behaved in a way that met or exceeded the expectations of their particular profession.
If a doctor was courteous, meticulous and exhibited genuine care toward their patients, one may refer to said doctor as professional, and that would have been taken as a compliment. Your toilet broke, and the plumber showed up immediately? They fixed your toilet, was good mannered and tactfully kept their mouth shut about the absolutely messy state in your home? You can call him professional too, and he’d be pleased with it.
So far so good. What have changed since then?
Over time, the number of fluff jobs in society increased in great number. These are not jobs akin to one being a doctor or an electrician, where one does something perhaps a bit technical and then see an end result – the patient is healed, the wall socket is repaired, etc. The sort of jobs that have grown in number in our society in general tend to be paper shuffling jobs, where one does not single-handedly create an end result of some sort.
The more relevant of these types of jobs have one working as a tiny cog in a big corporate machine, where even though one still contribute a bit, one would have great difficulties in seeing what one have truly have accomplished in that position. The less relevant of these newer, paper shuffling types of positions are useless gigs mainly invented to keep people employed, and hence obedient and capable of continuing to spend – a lot of government positions in various bureaucracies, especially ones with affirmative action hiring practices and quotas, tend to fall under this category – just think of your local DMV.
With the advent of these sorts of fluff positions, the dignity one receives from accomplishing the goals of their particular professions is gone. What end result does a Customer Care Analyst or a Client Relations Manager produce? Being called “professional” no longer implies one is intelligent or technically capable, but that one’s a tiny cog in a big corporate machine, or even worse, doing useless busy work as a result of government charity. On an off tangent, euphemized job titles such as “Sanitation Engineer” or “Customer Service Analyst”, is a sad attempt on the part of corporations to deal with this loss of dignity from most modern corporate positions.
Using the above comparison, one can see that the technical aspects of modern employment have changed. But what about the human aspects?
Going back to the original example I used with the doctor and the plumber, originally, one can be considered as professional when they show some care and respect to the other human beings they work with. How have this changed with the newer sorts of employment opportunities out in the job market?
To start with, fear of lawsuits and accusations of discrimination, sexual harassment and god knows what else have most professionals in corporate and government environments living very cautiously. Respect for another person, be they a coworker or customer, is no longer sufficient. One must now generally keep their mouth shut at all times to stay safe. Even a casual conversation on politics is dangerous, as one disagreement can paint oneself as a villain to someone with an opposing view (this is mostly due to the increased polarization in our society). Admittedly, this is not purely the fault of these paper shuffling jobs or even the big corporations in general, but a bigger trend in our society itself, however it’s part of what most people can expect out of a modern day professional position, all the same.
To add insult to injury, being that the job market is increasingly competitive, employees are generally expected to work longer hours. Mandatory overtimes, checking the company email and responding to them after work, Just on Time Scheduling practices where the employee doesn’t even know their shift hours for the next day, much less the week after, etc, are all considered normal and casually filed under the slogans of “being flexible”, “being a team player” or “being a multi-tasker”.
Lastly, as a cherry at the very top, most jobs are paying less, inflation adjusted. They come with less benefits. Those who love numbers can certainly play with statistics and downplay this, but the overall trend is that nowadays many small families need both parents to be working to barely make it, while in decades past just having one parent working a job in a family can be sufficient for a comfortable living.
When we add together all of the different factors that has been described above, what do we end up with? Generally in the past, being called “Professional” implied one had certain specialized knowledge and accomplished things using them. It also implied one was generally a courteous, respectful person.
Nowadays, considering the changes in employment itself in society, being called “Professional” often implies that one is overworked, underpaid, and tragically does not produce much tangible, useful results as a part of their daily efforts. It also very well implies that one is obedient, capable of keeping their mouths shut – that one is bullied and cowed into submission, like a servant who has been beaten and taught their place. Being called professional can sometimes have the stinging implication that one is simply a good little slave who keeps quiet – who works hard but either accomplishes very little, or is overall underpaid despite helping those above them make a lot more money.
People may not bother to analyze in detail the changes to the job market the way I have above – but they can still tell that something’s very wrong. Fulfilling the expectations of one’s profession, and hence being called “professional”, used to be a thing to be proud of, but now it’s not. The expectations themselves have changed greatly, and to fulfill them now is to accept the role of a servant, a slave. This is why “Professional” today is at best a neutral, meaningless compliment, and at worst, something that can leave people uncomfortable; it is also why, quietly, without people really realizing, “Professional” is no longer a word fit for funerals.