The Zoom camera turns on, and suddenly we find ourselves sitting up a little straighter and plastering on a smile. We’re speaking in a new tone and using phrases like “circle back” and “following up.”
In some ways, we’re putting on a show; acting “professional” can make us feel like we’re playing a role, someone who’s not even connected to our real self. While bringing our true selves to work can help foster connections and improve our working relationships with others, many of us feel like there are barriers to doing so. If we let our true selves shine, we fear there might be consequences.
Most work cultures today are built upon cultures that benefited and served (and may continue to benefit and serve) the privileged. White, male, wealthy, straight, abled — corporate culture was made for a certain sect of people, and when we think of being “professional,” these are the people who defined and continue to define what that means.
“Many white business leaders seem blissfully unaware of how office culture affects their diverse employees,” Elie Mystal writes in “The Nation.” “Normal office culture generally sucked for a whole lot of people. It’s a culture forged in the crucible of white male patriarchy and can be oppressive for those who don’t fit within its narrow margins.”
Because of this culture, bringing our true or “whole self” to work can mean going against the grain and the norm of those in power — which can be scary and challenging.
“For some, the notion of bringing your “whole self” into your professional life is inspiring,” writes Jamey Austin in “Why We Don’t Bring Our Whole Selves to Work.” “It’s an invitation. It’s an opportunity to be more fully expressed, to reveal more of your true personality at work. But for others, it’s a difficult challenge. These people feel at worst threatened, and at best unclear about what it means for them. Are they supposed to act like someone they’re not? Reveal something about themselves they don’t really want to?”
We’re stuck trying to be authentic at work even when we’re not in an environment that truly honors and makes space for that authenticity. It’s tiring to try and calculate how much of our true selves we can reveal, especially when we’re worried about being judged, cast out or even fired for being our whole selves.
“Coming up in a world and being raised where you were taught to look, dress, speak a certain way in certain settings and around certain people has literally trained me to code-switch in a way that has become exhausting,” an anonymous Fairygodboss member wrote on being “professional” at work. “However, I usually tend to let down my hair a tad once I get comfortable with a new company and my coworkers. Some cultures are just not made for us to be us. I haven't seen one non-Black-owned company where a Black person could truly be 100% comfortable being their full selves at work.”
Being professional and being ourselves sometimes have very little overlap. We feel uncomfortable being ourselves because we don’t see people like us in our workplace — because there are policies, unspoken or not, that don’t empower us to show up to work freely as ourselves.
First, the problem isn’t with us. We shouldn’t have to code-switch, shapeshift or mold ourselves to a corporate standard just to succeed at work. We can drop some casualness and be more aware of how we’re presenting ourselves, but we don’t and shouldn’t need to become an entirely new person in a professional context — especially one that has to take disrespectful behavior and even microaggressions to heart.
We can call in people who don’t give us the space to be ourselves. We can question why they say hurtful things and show them how their words have an impact. We can surround ourselves with people at work who are different from us and who look like us — and show our leaders and coworkers that diversity is ever so important for fostering community, learning, innovation and authenticity.
We can challenge those at the top who are setting the standards for us not to feel like we can be ourselves. We can ask for education for our coworkers; we can ask for accountability in hiring practices. We can make diversity metrics integral to our company’s success.
Being unable to be our true selves at work is not a fault of our own; it’s the fault of our company’s culture and the people and policies who set it. We can call out identity-denying behavior and be vocal about diversity policies and practices. Until changes come from the top, we can set the tone where we are, and protect our true selves where we can.
This article reflects the views of the author and not those of Fairygodboss.