What professionalism means to me

A few months ago, I had a little falling-out with my massage therapist. While temporary and amicable, it made me consider the meaning of professionalism.

I met “Jane” in early 2010, when I decided to treat myself to massage (among my favorite splurges). She had her quirks, but I appreciated her long experience, unpretentious personality, and reasonable rates. To me she was like a well-meaning, goofy aunt, whose idiosyncrasies I let slide.

For example, she’s routinely late. Not 10 or 15 minutes, but up to 45 minutes or more. She drives to Vancouver from Port Moody and something always delays her: dealing with household matters, getting stuck with an outcall client, traffic and parking. Now, I’m not always punctual myself (and I sometimes relish an excuse to read while I wait), but her long delays stress me out. Rule #1: Don’t be late.

As massage therapist and client, our personalities aren’t always complementary. For some reason, I am sometimes keyed up, even agitated, before a massage (maybe because I’ve been waiting forever!). She reacts to my high-key energy with similar energy, which isn’t an ideal prelude to massage. Rule #2: Don’t feed off a client’s moods.

What led to our falling-out was an extremely irrelevant and personal comment that she made. It had nothing to do with the massage or my health. I was nonplussed at her indiscretion. In the past, she had occasionally asked unnecessary questions out of the blue, probably to foster closeness. But this was too much. Rule # 3: Take cues from the client regarding familiarity and personal topics.

In the moment, I shrugged off her comment with silence. But later it bothered me. “This is exactly why I can’t recommend her to others,” I thought. “She has no sense of professionalism.” So I told her. She felt terrible, apologized for poor judgment, and explained that she thought that we knew each other well, that we were friendly.

Are we friendly? Yes. Are we friends? No. Friendship can develop between professional and client, but it must not be instigated by the professional. My primary priority: to exchange money for an excellent massage. Rule #4: Assume that clients are seeking a professional, not a friend.

I had eight sessions left on my pre-paid, multi-session-discount card, and she wouldn’t consider a refund. “You know I don’t have money,” she said. Yes, she’d often mentioned her financial straits, how she has a list of expert credit repair companies on speed dial, her late husband, the kooky tenants she took in to make her mortgage payments, etc. Such disclosures made us closer as people. But how much detail should a professional reveal? And does such conversation belong the midst of a massage? Rule #5: Keep your personal problems to yourself, especially while on the job.

In our back and forth over how to proceed, she mentioned several times that she’d often given me extra time before. Yes, she has given me longer sessions than the paid-for amount. But, with a late start, the extra time wasn’t always ideal. If already 45 minutes late, an extra 25 minutes of massage increased the delay well over an hour. More important, why bring up favors, whether extra time or a free consultation? She gave me extra time. I never asked for it! Rule #6: If you give a client a bonus, consider it a gift. The client doesn’t owe you a reciprocal favor.

For a while I was irked that she, perhaps in her early 60s, was clueless about such essential rules of professionalism. Why was I wasting time and energy debating obvious points? Massage was adding stress to my life! But I knew that she meant well and I turned the page. Since the incident, I’ve used up two more massages. It’s back to normal between us. I haven’t decided whether I’ll continue when the card runs out.

As for professionalism, what does it mean anyway? Nowadays the lines between professionals and clients/patients/students are fuzzy. We know so much about others through Facebook, blogs, online bios and CVs,  private conversations blurted into public cell phones. Professionals are expected to be chatty and approachable, else be considered old-school or aloof.

We who are hired as professionals must find our natural balance between friendliness and discretion. But one thing is obvious: be a professional first.

Image: Symphonic Scribbles blog; Stand Back, SnorgTees

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10 thoughts on “What professionalism means to me

  1. Ah yes, the professional who keeps you waiting. . . . As a client who always cuts it close for time, I don’t really have any firm ground to stand on, but I’m never more than a few minutes late. At 45 minutes, I think the message is: your time doesn’t matter to me.
    Which is why I like to start classes on time, and end them on time. Clients, or in our case, students, have busy lives, sometimes with rigid deadlines. Since I can’t know everyone’s situation, I assume that they all have somewhere important to go, and the “gift” of an extra 10 minutes of class won’t be a welcome one.
    Btw, I noticed your link to nonplussed. Good work on the fight to reclaim this word from the surprisingly large number of people who use it as if it means “unfazed.”

  2. Too bad about your fixation on who you think you are and who others should be. Realize it or not — agree or not — that makes you part of the problem. Nonplussed? Hardly. Righteous judgment? Hardly. Violating more than one yama/niyama? Apparently. Self-righteous? Apparently. Been there, done that. Learned out of it.

    Back to the knitting, young blogger.

    1. What is your advice? Live and let live? Accept everything? Love everyone?

      Aren’t the yamas and niyamas guiding us on who we “should” be?

      Thanks for commenting and making me think and rethink, Mark.

      PS See my link to “nonplussed.”

  3. I thought I was shocked at #1, but by the time I hit #6, I was appalled.

    To be kept waiting 45 minutes is inexcusable. Period. My time is valuable (monetarily and personally) and if a “professional” cannot honor and respect that, that’s it. No return business. Period.

    I have struck up aquaintances with professionals (hair stylists, etc) over the years, but with all of them, it has always been – I hate to call it this – superficial. Light chitchat about kids, movies, dinners in or out, things like that.

    I think you highlighted some excellent points on what it is to be a professional of any kind, and how to expect to be treated by a professional.

    1. Eve and Kristen: Thanks for your comments. While I wrote about the receiving end, I was actually contemplating my own role as yoga teacher.

      Imagine if I were chronically late to teach or if I let students’ moods affect mine. In yoga, especially, the teacher must control the tenor of the class. Imagine if I expected students to owe me something for the hours of “free consultations” that I give (conversations after class, email, etc).

      As for chumminess and self-revelation, I need not know every last detail about my yoga teachers’ private lives to establish strong rapport. The teaching (including words, presence, generosity, sense of humor) speaks for itself. So the same probably applies to me in the opposite role.

      Once, when I was apprenticing with my teacher, she arrived late for class. She whispered to me that she’d just had a car accident (her car was totaled). She proceeded to conduct the class with her usual energy and composure. Others might breathlessly announce such an incident, which is not necessarily bad–but the focus would then be on the teacher and her plight. A yoga class should be about the students, not about the teacher.

      I put up with Jane’s ways because, over time, I have gotten to know and to like her. As with a relative or friend, I want to help her out while also helping my body with massage. So the relationship is a give and take, as with family and friends. But it can be annoying.

  4. as a professional myself, it irks me when clients are late (my rule is if you’re late by 20min, i can’t see you). Of course there are times when it’s the exception- but when it becomes the rule that’s a problem. Like Kristin said- the message is that your time isn’t valuable to them.

    From your blog post I feel like you’ve been extremely patient with the situation and have taken a really healthy and balanced approach. Honestly, I would have been pissed and probably would have never returned- so good on you for going back.

    These are important lessons for professionalism- and i feel that often we don’t teach these skills directly enough (especially in the health sciences when it’s just automatically expected).

    1. Regarding being patient with an annoying situation: Very out of character for me! In contrast, I’ve tried six Vancouver hair stylists in four years, seeking The One.

      Good point about clients/patients/students being late. It goes both ways. In fact, we can be “professional” as students, partners, spouses, siblings, etc, too.

  5. Thanks. This is super apropos in my private yoga classes,where friendship and friendliness can quickly become muddled. I like to think of myself as a professional friend.

  6. Well, if nothing else comes of it, this is an excellent list!! This is not something that is unique – I often struggle with these same issues in my professional (non-yoga that is) life! I work in a small community no.4 especially speaks to me – how people expect to be relaxed and “friends” in a professional setting, and then at drinks after work, get all business-like. It’s such a fine line. And while we don’t want to be judgemental of the person, I don’t think it’s wrong to have expectations when you are paying for a service. Thanks for posting this!

  7. Forty-five minutes? Last Thursday, I asked someone to make me a sandwich. It’s been a week, and there’s still no sandwich. Okay, she’s not a professional sandwich maker, and I definitely don’t have a discount card, but still.
    She should quit getting so many massages, and start making more sandwiches. What do you think?

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