A Professor Professes About Professionals

I’m cheating. Today’s entry is pretty much the same as my upcoming MicroSoft article. Before we get to it, though, here’s my latest article at India Currents magazine. Now, onward…

The first image that came up when I Googled "professionals"

This weekend I gave a talk at a conference meant for “professionals” of a particular ethnic group of which I am a member.

The word “professional” has always baffled me. Technically, I think, a professional is someone who gets paid to do what they do. Historically, the word has been used to describe people who work in certain high status fields, like Medicine, Accounting, Engineering and Law. There’s some rationale in claiming that a professional is someone employed in a field that is overseen by a licensing body that guarantees high standards of conduct and of technical ability. By this definition, doctors, accountants, engineers and lawyers certainly qualify, but so do electricians, plumbers, machinists and a host of other highly skilled workers who typically don’t frequent –and who aren’t invited to– the cocktail party circuit.

In colloquial usage, a professional is someone who takes his or her job seriously, and by virtue of that seriousness produces work of a quality beyond that expected of a non-professional. A “professional” hitman, for instance, is presumably better at killing people than the violent kid next door, and will do so more efficiently and with less drama. Hitmen are rarely invited to conferences and “networking” events, however. This is probably a good thing.

The word “professional” is sometimes used as a proxy for “wealthy”. Many ads on dating sites, for example, explicitly state a preference among suitors for “professionals”, since a professional is typically among the top earners of our society; hence the association of the word with cocktail parties and “networking” events. Yet garbage collectors and bus drivers –professionals that are well paid, indeed– are usually excluded from such events. Ironically, students and unemployed cubicle jockeys feel right at home brushing elbows at these suit-wearing, wine-sipping exchanges, while their wealthier and better trained smock-wearing brethren do not.

I’m not really sure what point I’m trying to make here, except that we so often hide behind euphemisms to obfuscate the crass classism of our activities. In modern parlance, “professional” really means “white collar”, and carries with it an implication of advanced social status. This is a tad ironic, since “white collar” no longer means wealthy, ethical or sophisticated, which are presumably the traits one is expecting at “networking” events. Maybe the plumbers, bus drivers, tool makers and short order cooks of the world are already holding champagne parties and “networking” events to which we of the snooty, degreed class are not invited. I wouldn’t blame them.