Professionalism: The Art of Compartmentalizing


In my Filipinx American organizing spaces, we sometimes check-in by sharing personal updates on one of the five P’s:

  • Pinansya/Pag-aaral (finance/school)
  • Pamilya/Kaibigan (Family/Friends)
  • Pag-ibig (Love)
  • Pag-kilos (Revolution Work)
  • Pagkalusugan (Health)

The last time we did this, the facilitator mentioned when choosing only one, you could still talk about the other four P’s. A simple reminder to us that we don’t have to compartmentalize because the different aspects of our lives are interconnected.

Lately, I’ve been working on recognizing and naming the interconnectedness of my life. It’s my way of actively working to resist compartmentalization, a process I now view as a product of imperialistic and patriarchal socialization — a realization three years in the making.

Between my middle school and high school years, I felt the need to cope with life’s stress by mentally compartmentalizing. I preferred to keep my home, school and social life as separate as possible.

In college, I learned to avoid certain subjects when discussing business particularly one’s personal life (romance, family, etc.). My classes and interactions taught me to maintain a certain level of emotional detachment so I could make business decisions without bias. I noticed that folks who brought up their personal lives in conversation were perceived as “unprofessional.” It seemed that there was a time and place to share the intimate details of what makes us human.

During one of my previous corporate-y internships, I struggled to figure out what parts of my humanity I could share without feeling tokenized, dismissed or othered. When I arrived at work, I would briefly acknowledge my supervisors and immediately get to work. I felt a pressure to perform and didn’t know how to bring my personal interests into conversations without feeling like I was derailing business. When I tried to articulate this struggle during my end-of-internship review, my internship supervisor responded, “You could have brought something to the table,” insinuating that it was my inability to be myself in that office setting was solely my fault.

Looking back, I realize what I brought to the table was my perspective as a Filipinx American who had just travelled back to the Philippines the previous summer as a Kaya Collaborative fellow. As a fellow, I worked for a local social enterprise four days of the week and spent one dialoguing with my cohort about our experiences and solutions to the issues we encountered.

During those three months, I began to recognize how my socialization to compartmentalize was a step to prepare me for Western professional ideals. I noticed key differences with how Filipinxs approach “professional” conversations. Within one week of my internship, my colleagues and folks I networked with had asked about my dating history. I still remember the discomfort that bubbled out of me when asked to discuss what I did not consider “appropriate” initial meeting conversation. This discomfort I felt made me wonder why did I not consider this appropriate? Who dictates this?

Over time, I didn’t feel a need to compartmentalize as much. This feeling was a result of (1) being surrounded by folks who generally looked like me and (2) seeing colleagues step over the professional lines I’d learned in the states.

Back to that conversation with my internship supervisor– I broke down. I felt intense frustration and anger around this pressure to assimilate into an office culture that kept conversations at a superficial level: the latest mainstream music, the newest food craze, the repetitious conversation about the dysfunctional printer and of course, our work. There was no depth, no talk of values, hopes, or long-term visions of what we looked forward to in life as human beings. The tears were healing but I knew I had blown that internship experience because of my inability to hold in my anger and frustration. Despite my authenticity, my emotional outburst was “unprofessional.”

My upbringing and early schooling socialized me to believe professionalism is the art of compartmentalizing and approaching life with emotional detachment. Being professional is about learning to fit a box, wear a mask and fit the status quo even at the risk of being inauthentic.

To sum up my newfound perspective on professionalism:

  • The term “professional” seems to be the modern term for “imperialism.”
  • Compartmentalizing is the new “divide and conquer.”
  • Hiding away your most authentic self is the ultimate price we pay to survive in this world that thirsts for “professionalism.”

Three years later and I am finally finding words to describe how my trip to the Philippines shifted my perspective on professionalism. Knowing that valuing connectedness and humanity is part of Philippine culture empowers me on a daily basis to resist the dehumanizing impacts of Western professionalism. And with resistance comes the need to create a vision of what a healthy, interconnected, life-affirming office culture would actually look like. Resisting is just the first step to healing from the imperialism-induced trauma of professionalism. I’m realizing that if I’m as serious about making this world a better place as I often preach, I need to start figuring out how to create spaces that connect the five P’s.

Ah, I love being a constant work in progress.

Curious, what questions and/or thoughts does this slurry of reflections stir up for you?

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