Let’s say that you and a good friend are out on a boat one weekend relaxing, shooting the breeze, getting as far away from your daily nine-to-fives as time will allow. Then a ringing cuts through the conversation and your friend reaches into his pocket. He stiffens, signals you to keep quiet, and answers in a rigid register two octaves deeper than before.

“Hello, ma’am,” he says. “No, it’s no problem — Mm-hmm — Mm-hmm — Yep — No problem — No, thank you — Yep, see you Monday.”

Must be work, you think.

You vaguely recall that back in school you never had to put on your “work voice” to answer a phone call. When did things become so different? It’s not as if anyone ever got fired for answering “yello?” on a business phone call.

Have they?

When You’re a Professional, You Are Your Profession

Psychologists have noted this behavioral phenomenon but disagree as to its cause. Although some argue that personality traits guide behaviors across situations, others conversely hold that situations are the main influencer of personality traits.

Regardless of what’s causing your friend’s split-personality to appear during your weekend excursion, common knowledge suggests that professional standards require most employees to distinguish their professional lives from their personal ones. Being “yourself” in an office setting is likely to upset decorum, especially if who you are outside work differs widely from the behavioral expectations of colleagues and customers.

Professional stereotypes largely determine what people expect from those with whom they deal in a workplace setting. Most people, for example, anticipate that:

  • Construction workers carry lunchpails to work, catcall from catwalks, drive pickup trucks and read sports magazines.
  • Doctors and nurses are caregivers, deeply concerned with the wellbeing of their patients.
  • Firefighters, police officers and soldiers are upstanding citizens who follow the law to the letter and face down danger to protect society.
  • Computer programmers and mechanics are quirky, antisocial tinkerers who can understand complex systems and play Mr. Fix-It.

Those who break the mold — the callous doctor or the well-read construction worker — may confuse, irritate or even upset those for whom expectations go unmet. But if it seems as though such oddballs are rare, it may be because humans possess a strong conformity instinct. Workers whose personalities naturally differ from the norm tend to behave as do their peers in order to fit in and smooth social interaction.

The Shoe Seldom Fits at First

For a fortunate few whose personal traits nearly match their profession’s expectations, a suit and tie may fit them as naturally as stripes on a tiger as they will need little in the way of self-discipline to avoid acting counter to what their workplaces expect.

Most aren’t so lucky. Although a few degrees of personality stretching may be easy for most workers to maintain, when a poor culture match pulls them too far away from their core identity then their choices may be limited to two: change or leave.

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Change may be the better option. For some, the ability to carve out an identity befitting their vocation is a natural talent; for others it is a learned skill. Still others can’t learn — or won’t. Such nonconforming employees can be a boon to businesses, bringing new ideas to the table and diverse personalities to the workforce. Culture clashes may, however, just as easily disrupt rather than bolster cohesiveness and productivity.

Personalities Can Stretch . . . and Snap

Just why personality clashes occur so often may have to do with personal necessity. When the only job a person can find requires her to divorce her work-self from her home-self, then no amount of cultural difference is too wide to traverse — until she’s been there a while, perhaps.

Jobs that feature baked-in behavioral expectations are prone to such burnout. Physicians, nurses, social workers, police officers, attorneys, teachers — all jobs notorious for punishing lapses in etiquette.

Some jobs may require the employee to dissociate from the activity for the sake of sanity or self-respect: Claims adjusters, meter maids, process servers, telemarketers, property managers — just try evicting a family from their home during your work day without bringing some kind of emotional baggage back to yours.

Personal Ethics Are Not (Necessarily) Professional Ethics

When employees are asked to do things at work they would otherwise find morally objectionable, compartmentalization may become impossible. Although an unwillingness to compromise personal values for a paycheck is no character flaw, a job description that requires certain functions to be performed doesn’t change simply because an employee feels it should.

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If performing your job while maintaining your self-esteem is impossible, it may be time to seek a more fitting work environment.

Public Face and Private Life

Most of us behave differently when relaxing with old friends than when at the workplace, and to feel that such balancing is a difficult act is a common human experience. It’s a task most employees take on without even thinking. Taking stock of your personal tendencies and moral values and comparing them to your workplace expectations, however, can make shifting between your home-self and work-self a powerful professional tool.

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