When I entered the work world, I had to abandon many of the cultural habits I’d acquired as a youth growing up weird in rural and semi-urban South Carolina.
Many of us in my social circle had developed a sort of subversive irony and had woven it into our personal styles, manners and subcultural customs. In everything we did and said, we signaled “I only work here.” If we were made to put on a suit and act straight, we wanted our act to be unconvincing: “This not me.”
We saw everyone who tried to assimilate and achieve as sell-out phonies, and any adoption of any externally imposed etiquette or shared efforts was beneath our dignity. We were proud to not belong.
After years of professional cultural assimilation, looking back I realize most of this worldview was just a punk-mutated form of standard working class attitudes — devices used to insulate and protect an individual’s dignity from the degradation of low-paying, low-autonomy jobs. My own family history straddles classes, and I believe a got a pretty strong dose of working class attitude as a kid, enough that I found well-adjusted, classier kids uninteresting and unfit for friendship.
Basically, in becoming professional, first through incredibly awkward attempts at code-switching, then later through genuine internalization I learned a couple of really important things I never could have learned without undergoing this incredibly uncomfortable, occasionally depressing, ordeal.
1) We cannot thrive in institutions we secretly despise. If we withhold ourselves, preserve our alienation, participate with reluctance and wear our membership like a mask, instead of figuring out some mode where we can be who we really are within the necessary constraints of social existence, our withholding is palpable to peers and leaders. If you are half-in and half-out, whether you know it or not, everyone around you feels it and knows it with immediate, intuitive certainty. And committed members of an organization will not — and should not — give you responsibility they know you will not own.
2) There is profound wisdom in professionalism. What seems like arbitrary etiquette that only signals in-group from out-group is in fact an organic social technology that permits members of organizations to function effectively and gracefully as collaborators, while protecting everyone from potentially conflicting personal idiosyncrasies. We suppress at work whatever is not needed to get the job done, not because it is essentially unacceptable and unworthy, but because it is sacred, unique and vulnerable and requiring the protection of privacy. Those things we keep to ourselves at work — or at least, in wiser times, used to keep to ourselves — politics, religion, controversial opinions — are the very things that might conflict, cause friction and drive unnecessary wedges between people who need to get along and work together.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be at least somewhat initiated into the professional world. If I’d chosen a counter-cultural life outside of business I may have clung to my romantic ideal of proud and principled alienation from the superficialities of professional life.
I am even more grateful I was not indoctrinated to believe that my childhood culture determined my essential identity and defined who I am and who I must forever commit to being, lest I become a sell-out phony and a betrayer of my culture.
If I had been taught this, and learned to believe it with all my heart, I would have been left on the margins, locked out by my own refusal just to open the door and walk in. This would have been a disservice, a miseducation — a passing down of a self-defeating tradition.
We are not who we are because of culture, nor are we who we are despite culture. We discover who we are by collaborating with culture, experimenting with who we can be, and maturing into well-socialized but authentic individuals.