Recently I found myself involved in a couple of conversations where, afterward, I was thanked for my professionalism. These conversations were unrelated and with completely different people.

Now, I’m not tooting my own horn by mentioning this. Many people who know me would likely snicker at that word being mentioned in the same sentence as my name.

But what struck me after these conversations was that the people who thanked me weren’t referring to any particular behaviour or actions of mine at all. But they did mean exactly the same thing: “I’m relieved you didn’t make this more unpleasant for me.”

Because I could have. In one case I had contractual backing, and the other situation was handled poorly due to bad planning and inexperience. But ultimately, from my end there were greater advantages in exercising patience, leaving things unsaid, and the fact that further engagement simply wasn’t worth the time or effort.

It got me thinking about what a loaded and evolving word “professionalism” is, and how rarely it seems to mean what you think it means, to borrow from Inigo Montoya.

Professionalism is supposed to refer to a higher level of skill or competence possessed by or at least expected of someone. Typically that someone gets paid to do a thing and/or they do the thing after a substantial amount of education, training and/or practice.

In a number of areas, like sports, “professional” refers to someone who gets paid to participate, as in the Olympics’ distinction between amateur and professional athletes.

Outside of elite athletics, like in the workforce, professional can refer to roles people do for which they have to be educated and licensed. Think “white collar professionals,” like doctors or engineers.

However, professionalism is more about developed soft skills that aren’t job- or industry-specific – abilities to assess, make judgments and behave in ways that are appropriate to situations or audiences, and also have desired outcomes.

Of course, the finer points of organizationally-defined professionalism in those (usually work-related) spheres are subjective and potentially layered. Expectations could be set down by a profession, an industry, a company, a team or a manager. Or all of the above. They could have explicit, operational reasons for existing, or they could just be based on upholding traditions.

Organizations tend to codify at least some expectations regarding professionalism in policies, like dress codes or rules on employee “fraternization.” These help to maintain the image the organization wants to project, and protect it from harm as a result of poor employee decisions or outright criminal behaviour.

However, policies or arbitrarily applied labels of professionalism, or lack thereof, can be code to disguise racism, sexism and other inappropriate or rights-violating behaviours on the part of those in power.

I recall a former co-worker commenting that her new employer had a dress code that required women to wear pantyhose. Why? Professionalism. This was a lot more recent than you might think.

I cannot imagine a single scenario where business success would hinge on stockings. But then, like most people I’ve been working in soft pants for some time...

Or consider the number of Black employees, women especially, who have been told the appearance of their hair is unprofessional if worn naturally or in certain styles.

Or the number of women whose careers have been negatively impacted because of “unprofessional” patterns of behaviour. Typically the need to take care of their families, like multiple mat leaves, or not working endless overtime, or time off with short notice because of a sick child.

When “professionalism” is code for ignorance, inconvenience or worse, you can be sure those wielding the term are likely spreading even more forms of toxicity. The irony being, guess who’s actually lacking professionalism when acting like this?

Another twisted usage is to sweep incompetence or misconduct under the rug. You shouldn’t have found out about something, or something was done to you that shouldn’t have been. But the person who did it isn’t sorry and of course doesn’t want to get caught.

Let’s just be professional about it. Keep it quiet, keep it to yourself, and think of the team (the company, people’s futures, etc…) then you can become or remain part of the club.

It’s an implied glimpse into another world, the “real” one, to show how things really work and what those with privilege can have. If you play by the rules, or make them.

Nothing needs to get ugly, no one needs to get hurt (except those who already were, but they don’t really matter). Of course, this is all lies, and it can only work when there’s a power imbalance.

It’s the opposite of professional, there do need to be consequences, and you won’t be part of the club. Anyone who’s ever seen a gangster flick knows what happens to people who witness bad things accidentally.

Which is of course the underlying threat of that flavour of professionalism: retaliation. Being professional means you won’t “make” someone punish you.

Now, this certainly gets into more malignant territory than the situations I was in. But both times I was very much in a position where I could have made things much harder on the other person. Perhaps thanks to having been in the work world for some years, though, I have developed a healthy dose of realism.

What could have felt good in the moment could have had not-so-good repercussions down the road. You never know who knows or influences whom, whose paths might cross down the road, or how long someone’s memory is. And sometimes people are at the mercy of circumstances.

Perhaps that is the true definition of professionalism. An ability to see and play the long game. To pick your battles. To take care of yourself first (we are talking about the corporate world after all…) but knowing that doesn’t mean only ever taking care of just yourself.

Keep in mind what the best option is for you, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. Even if it’s not part of a corporate policy or an oath taken. Even if you don’t know if or when it will ever play out to your advantage.

For what it’s worth, it only took a few days to play out to my advantage.