This last couple of weeks' worth of various bloggers' complaining about booth babes at trade shows overlapped with a very good friend of mine's recent application to college, to finish her degree, and one of the questions on her entrance paperwork touched on exactly what booth babes mean to me. The question was, "What does 'professionalism' mean to you?", and she mentioned to me that it wasn't something that she thought about a whole lot, that (like, apparently, a lot of people) she had to look the word up in online dictionaries to come up with some inspiration, in order to find something to write about.
I laughed a low, nasty, knowing laugh. I don't get asked "what does professionalism mean to you?" enough.
In spoken English, a one-word insult, any one-word insult, can be spoken in almost any tone of voice. The same one-word insult can mean anything from, "I like you, you have this foible that you're embarrassed by, but, as your friend, I find it endearing," all the way to, "wow, I had mistaken you for an actual human being, until just now I had no idea that you were a subhuman incompletely house-trained talking animal; I find your presence so morally and aesthetically objectionable that if you don't leave right now, I'm going to have to." Some people always use one fixed tone of voice for a single insult, or a small collection of insults, and that tells you what they care about the most; there are some things that bother people so much that they cannot say the word for that moral failing without loading it up with deep, deep contempt.
For my father, the late Man of Concrete, that word was "unprofessional." For him, it was such a demeaning insult that, even having grown up willing to fight anybody any time, I never saw him be willing to call someone "unprofessional" to their face. He always waited until they walked away, or until he had walked away, before saying, "that was unprofessional" in the same tone of voice that most people would use to say, "that was supposed to be food, but ended up being just a maggot-covered pile of vomit and feces." Dad used the word "unprofessional" the way a conservative uses the word "filthy" or "bureaucrat," the way a liberal uses the word "racist" or "banker."
Even before I worked with him for two summers, just growing up under him, I probably knew by the age of 10, or at most 12, what "professional" meant to him: he meant that if something is your job, you treat it like a profession. If you're getting paid for what you do, you owe it not just to your employer, but to humanity as a species, to treat it as if it is important enough to deserve your full effort and your full attention, and you treat your co-workers, superiors, subordinates, suppliers, contractors, your customers' employees, and even your competitors and their employees, as if you and they are engaged in something important, something serious, something deserving of not just effort, but attention, and not just attention, but respect.
It is one of the unsolved mysteries about the Man of Concrete to wonder where in the hell he came by this notion, how it became so deeply engrained in him. His father was an alcoholic bum who spent most of the '20s in jail, most of the '30s in the WPA, and even after the war, when he finished out his working years as a union electrician, it was in a line of work where and at a time when, my father assured me, just about every electrical sign erector drank 3 six-packs' worth of beer in the course of a working day, and drank another half-dozen beers and a couple of shots of whiskey between when he got home and when he went to bed, and then got up again and did the exact same thing the next day, until he retired; there wasn't a lot of professionalism in that field when he started in it, and was only a little more when I was working in it around 1980. As I've remarked before, he went to his grave insisting that during WW2, he served not in the real navy, but in McHale's navy, on a tiny cargo boat full of rejects under an alcoholic skipper just waiting to retire.
He spent much of the post WW2 era in an artist colony, living on California unemployment benefits ... although I wonder, from what little he said about that, if it was trying to make a living as a professional artist that taught him to take professionalism seriously. Not long thereafter, he gave it up and went to work as a tool-and-die supervisor for a defense contractor; I know he took that job so much more seriously than his predecessor that he improved the department's processes to the point where he no longer had 8 hours' worth of work to do per shift, I know that from then on, long before I was born let alone adopted, he did everything that he did for money impersonally, seriously, calmly, with ferocious attention, and while he was capable of pretending to be polite, given any control over his work situation, he showed zero tolerance whatsoever for any activity or even conversation that wasn't work-related. And if he found himself working with, for, along side of, near, under, or above someone who tried to mix business and pleasure, at all? When he walked away, he would be muttering under his breath: "unprofessional."
The funny thing about it, to me, was that he could be very forgiving of people who were ineffective, for a lot of reasons. He was unfailingly kind to the disabled. He was capable of being amused by stupidity; when forced to work with someone who was just uneducably stupid, who just could not learn the job, he would be polite to their face, and as uncondescending as he could manage. When they weren't around, he and other people he worked with who knew them would swap stories about their stupidity while laughing so hard that tears ran down their faces; some time, ask me for some of the stories dad and his co-workers used to tell about "Arnie" if you want some really memorable examples. But even then, if other people's jokes about the terminally incompetent got mean-spirited or personal, dad would steer the conversation back towards forgiveness of them for things that they really couldn't help. I saw dad work with guys who were having personal problems, who were wrestling with alcohol or drugs or criminal problems, or who were losing sleep because of sick or criminal relatives, who just plain had little or no attention to spare for the job; he could be infinitely forgiving of that as long as he knew they were still really trying, as long as the job was getting as much attention as they really had left. Many of those things bothered him, as a guy they periodically endangered and who spent much of the rest of his time having to clean up the things they'd done badly or incompletely. But the only thing that ever aroused his total and unfailing contempt was people who didn't take their job seriously, was people who thought that their job was uninteresting, or beneath them, or, worst of all, something where they were entitled to play around during the hours that they should be working instead.
I can only try, probably unsuccessfully, to explain to any of you who've never worked in the financial services industry how poorly that prepared me for life at the employer I spent the most years at, the one I half-jokingly refer to as The Conspiracy. Oh, half of the people at The Conspiracy, the technical half of the company, the hardware and software guys who provided the actual services, were mostly almost as professional as I was raised to be. They flirted with each other to an extent the old man would have considered completely inappropriate, they took more breaks to laugh and joke than the old man would have considered appropriate, they wasted more time on small talk than the old man would have considered appropriate, but they all put in long hours, and when they were working, they worked. But the financial services side of the company, and the management who came up through that side of the company? Well, they were almost unfailingly people who were "to the manor born," people who grew up wearing imported high-fashion clothes tailored to them by bespoke tailors. I met exactly one of them that even tried to take the job seriously; the rest of them treated it like a profoundly unserious hobby, as something they did to fill the hours when they weren't (officially) allowed to be drinking, like a cocktail party with a couple of scheduled activities. These guys (and they were nearly all guys) expected not just booth babes at their trade-show junkets, they expected each sales rep to show up with a call girl in tow, to service them any time they weren't cheating on their wives with some subordinate while they were theoretically "on the clock." When they weren't sexually harassing subordinates, or actually having sex during working hours, they spent at least half of their time talking, either laughingly or totally seriously, about completely non-work related activities.
I spent the whole six and a half years I was at The Conspiracy holding my nose every time I had to deal with the financial industry half of the company. I have a notoriously impassive face, but that I didn't share their idea of appropriate work behavior wasn't especially feasible to hide; after all, I wasn't joining in. And I know they felt judged by me; I got complaints about it, although scarcely any more complaints than anybody else from the technical side of the company got. But I know this; neither the half of us who actually worked for a living, who actually shipped the product, nor the half of us who bribed and glad-handed each other while making or receiving sales or investment pitches, had anything like even minimally overlapping ideas of what the word "professional" meant.
But I know what "professionalism" means to me. And, to this day, I am my father's son in this: I use the word "unprofessional" with at best ill-disguised contempt when I say it.