On the use, misuse, and abuse of the words ‘Profession’ and ‘Professional’

An essay on the use, misuse, and abuse of the words ‘profession’ and ‘professional.’

It seems to me lately that virtually every working person (and many non-working people as well) is labeling himself ‘a professional.’ Worse, virtually everyone in the working world (and … again … a lot of non-working peope as well) is being required to conduct themselves in a ‘professional manner.’ Visit a Starbucks and you are greeted by ‘professional baristas.’ Go to a sporting event and you get to see ‘professional’ atheletes. Try to buy a car and you encounter ‘professional’ car salesmen. Today’s advertising is loaded with messages from ‘professional’ housepainters, ‘professional’ freight movers, ‘professional’ security guards services, ‘professional’ photographers, ‘professional’ florists, ‘professional’ maid services, to name but a very few. Businesses of every kind extol the ‘professional behavior’ of their employees, and consumers with a complaint often criticize every kind of employee, from corporate CEO to fast-food drive-through attendant, for ‘un-professional behavior.’ Now I ask you, is there really such a thing as ‘un-professional behavior’ at Jack-in-the-Box???

The use, misuse, and abuse of the words ‘profession’ and ‘professional’ set my teeth on edge. I cannot take it any more!

A Brief History of ‘The Professions’

The noun ‘professional’ is correctly defined as someone who engages in or is qualified to engage in one or more of the recognized professions. The adjectival form is correctly defined as of, pertaining to, or connected with a profession. But what is a ‘profession’?

Originally, there were only three true ‘professions’: law, medicine, and theology (i.e., the priesthood). Lawyers, physicians, and theologians studied at universities, earned master’s and doctoral degrees (bacclaureate degrees were a much later invention) in the law, medicine, or theology, and ‘professed,’ or took an oath, before entering into practice in the respective field. All other working people were either ‘tradesmen’ or ‘laborers’, with few exceptions.

The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were each members of individual and occupation-specific trade guilds. They served lengthy hands-on apprenticeships under a master before being initiated into the guild as a master themselves. Being a full member of a guild, having a ‘trade,’ was a prestigious thing, worthy of respect in the community. There was no shame whatsoever in being ‘non-professional,’ in being a ‘tradesman’ … though obviously ‘professionals’ were accorded even more respect since they were perceived as having literal direct control over the liberty, health, and spiritual salvation of their customers.

But as societies advanced and the world of commerce and trade became more complex, new occupational opportunities arose. Goldsmiths with their secure storage safes and pawnbrokers with their mortgaged lending began to become bankers, and a new ‘profession’ was born. Nations moved from ad-hoc-conscripted armies to standing armies, and the ‘professional’ soldier came into being. And with the myriad new occupational opportunities came equally myriad opportunities for fraud and deceit. How could the average person tell whether the man on the corner calling himself a physician was really a physician, or was instead a charlatan who would collect fees with one hand while giving his patient plain sugar-water with the other? And so governments got involved.

And as governments began to exercise ever more control over trade and commerce, citizens began to insist on protection by those governments from false practitioners. Only governments had the necessary enforcement agencies and personnel to regulate the hundreds of different trades and the hundreds of thousands of tradesmen; the guilds lacked the manpower to continue that work themselves. And so licensure systems were initiated. Ever-growing numbers of trades were subjected to standards set by central non-specialist legislative bodies rather than by members of the trade itself. Examinations that qualified a tradesman for entry into his field were moved from the administrative bodies of the guild to an agency of the government of the State. And the State began recognizing those who had met State qualifications for a given trade by issuing government licenses to practice that trade. So the meaning of the term ‘professional’ began gradually to expand to include these new license-holders. Apothecary-pharmacists became ‘professional’ pharmacists; accountants became ‘professional’ accountants, and those who facilitated the sale of real estate became ‘professional’ real estate agents.

When did it all go really wrong?

I blame the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the rise in the 1980s of ‘political correctness.’

The 1960s produced some really positive changes in society, to be sure, including and especially the extension of civil rights to women and minority groups. But in order to eliminate social differences, people had to become more acutely aware of the existence of a wider variety of differences. There was, I believe, an impetus in the social movements of the 1960s toward social leveling, toward a social structure without differences. People wanted to believe, to pretend, that the words of the American Declaration of Independence really are true, that all men (and women) really are equal, full stop. It became problematic for one occupational field to claim superiority over another by calling the one a ‘profession’ and the other a ‘trade.’ Prior to the 1960s, a doctor, lawyer, or priest entering a home entered through the front door; the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker used the back door, known in large homes as the ‘tradesmen’s entrance.’ This practice flew in the face of the social leveling of the 1960s, and so all men (and women) began to be accorded the front entry.

Political correctness only exacerbated the issue. Occupational titles that were previously perfectly respectable suddenly became unacceptable. Sometimes this was because the occupation was associated in the popular imagination, rightly or wrongly, with a particular minority or otherwise-oppresed gender or racial group, such as maids. At other times, it was because the occupation carried with it certain economic implications for the practitioner, such as the trash collector. Maids became ‘domestic engineers’ and trash collectors became first ‘sanitation workers’ then ‘sanitation engineers.’ Engineers were recognized professionals after all, while ‘worker’ implied low-paying manual labor. Status was everything, even if that status was imaginary or artificial. And although it was briefly quite common in the 1980s to lampoon the new politically-correct occupational titles, that lampooning soon itself became politically incorrect as the users of the inflated titles became ever more insistent on using them.

So what is a ‘profession,’ really, and how does one qualify to be called a ‘professional’?

Many modern dictionaries have bowed to social and cultural pressure and now define ‘profession’ as ‘any [emphasis added] occupation, vocation, or business.’ This is, in my opinion, entirely unsatisfactory, even wrong.

Wikipedia, the new arbiter of knowledge in the information age (despite its reputation for questionable reliability), actually has a pretty good modern definition of ‘profession,’ paraphrased here :

A profession is a full-time occupation with specific entry training schools, has governing member-associations, has published codes of conduct and ethics specific to the occupation, and is subject to state licensure to practice the occupation.

I like this definition, even if it did come from Wikipedia! And I say that even though by this definition I can not rightly call myself a ‘professional’ historian, since historians are not subject to state licensure!

By this definition, there is no such thing as a professional barista, professional athelete, professional car salesman, professional security guard, professional photographer, professional florist, or professional maid service. And even though housepainters and freight movers may require licensure in some locales, they lack specialized entry training schools and/or governing member-associations, so they too cannot rightly call themselves ‘professionals.’

Professional behavior

So if the person behind the counter at Starbucks is not really a professional, what terminology can we use — or should we use — in describing their at-work behavior, whether that behavior is positive or negative? If they are not a ‘professional,’ how can we — why should we — expect them to behave in a ‘professional’ manner? Is there really even any such thing as ‘professional’ behavior, even among practitioners of a profession as that word is defined above?

Answering the last question answers all of the other questions at the same time. In my opinion, NO, there is no such thing as ‘professional behavior’! There is only appropriate behavior. And the most we can ask of any person in any occupation whatsoever is that they conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to that occupation. If the barista at Starbucks is great at his or her job, praise them for being appropriate, not for being ‘professional.’ If you need to complain, tell the supervisor or employer that the individual behaved inappropriately, not that they were ‘unprofessional.’

Together we can end this madness that is the misuse, over-use, and abuse of the words ‘profession’ and (especially!) ‘professional’!!!


J. Stephan Edwards
Doctor of Philosophy and an Historian,
not a ‘Professional’ Historian!)
19 August 2012