Does Work Define Us?

Rock climber clinging to a cliff.

Work may not define us to our friends, but to work supervisors our work persona plays a pretty major role and so many of us spend decades toeing the line. I know we’d all like to think we don’t stereotype people and we work hard not to do so, but subconsciously, many of those ideas still lurk and they color our interactions with those around us.

Back in my dancing days, I worked in a fairly liberal atmosphere, one in which people were encouraged to be artistic and individual. That included the way we dressed, the things we’d do and say in public and even our hobbies. We didn’t care what anyone else thought, either.

But then I retired from dancing and spent several decades in the “normal” world and the old rules no longer applied. I found that I was expected to dress a certain way, talk a certain way and behave a certain way. I also felt like I put on a mask every morning and only partially removed it when I got home.

You can remove the mask in private and be whoever you are at heart – and that doesn’t even have to be too outlandish, mind you – but if you’re in public, even outside of work, you run the risk of someone, anyone, knowing one of your co-workers and reporting back on how “different” you were than what they thought. If that gets back to supervisors, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their minds they wonder if any of those traits will eventually carry over into work and it may influence the assignments you get, the people who interact with you, and the possibility of advancement.

So let’s take an example. Let’s say I get up every morning, put on the appropriate amount of makeup with a shade of lipstick that doesn’t scream “hooker,” accessorize sparingly, make sure I’m wearing the right length dress or skirt (nothing too short or tight), spray my hair to within an inch of its life so it stays “just so” and make sure I don’t offer contradictory opinions (always look like a team player), walk like a newly starched shirt, and sit “like a lady” – not exactly sure what that means but certainly know what it’s not, and it’s not my favorite cross-legged on the floor position.

But then someone sees me at a concert in ripped jeans, low-cut shirt, purple hair, a nose ring and a beer in my hands. Don’t think for a second that that’s not going to make the rounds at work. It may not even be malicious. It’s just a different “you” from what people are accustomed to seeing. So what happens next time someone says, “Let’s put Lisa in charge of the new project with Mr. Smith.” Without even thinking, that supervisor may say, “You know, I think maybe we need someone a little more conservative to work with Mr. Smith.”

Now clearly that’s not me (maybe only because I don’t drink), but perceptions can color your career, so you find yourself conforming as much as you can for as long as you can. That’s why I say that work defines us. We spend so much of our time in a work environment that we spend years acting as one person when our heart is another.

What would I change? At this point nothing because I’m too old, but if I had the balls, I’d live every day at work in my sweats and sneakers, I’d speak up every time I had something to say or wanted to point out the things that upper management does that piss off the “little people” like me (and that might be fairly often and really obnoxious) and I might even dance down the hallway from time to time. Good thing I’m close to retirement because my job would be over, I’d be out the door and I probably wouldn’t be able to find a new one.

The bottom line? Yes, my job defines me.

But not for long.