The Mask and the Magic: Professionalism, Authenticity, and the Fine Line In Between
We all want to put our best foot forward when it comes to workplace dynamics. This, of course, means appearing optimistic, open, and collaborative even though we are wrestling with anxiety, or dislike our managers, or cannot fully open our eyes due to lack of sleep. And even though we might communicate our emotional situation, there are limits to the amount of honesty we're often willing to dive into within a professional setting.
There is another choice, though, besides simply waiting until we drag our weary heels home to drink away our sorrows at the kitchen table. There doesn't have to be full stop prior to showing emotion at work. And, if you can master the walk of that soft sciences tightrope, that delicate balancing act can sometimes turn into your greatest asset.
Bottom line: people DO want professionalism, but they do not generally want a robot. A robot can dispense change, but they cannot do it with a smile while listening to poorly crafted jokes made by an awkward single dad buying cat food at 11:30 at night. The things that make your job hard and how you react to them are the reasons why your customers keep coming back to you, and not to the vending machine on the corner.
Note that the smile in the example is not just a smile; it's a smile while listening. Yes, sometimes a mask is necessary, but more often that that, accessing the fine line is about listening and connecting. What a depressed personality in desperate need of human contact is looking for is not a robotic show of teeth and strained cheek muscles; it's a reaction to the words, an acknowledgement that another human has spoken. Acknowledgement means something, because it means that the human speaking also means something. And that can mean...everything.
To lean on an actor's vocabulary, the basics of customer service are about listening and reacting. Listening means taking in the information given, and reacting means acknowledging that information. The difference in the workplace is that you are often listening and reacting as an employee, a singular fraction (although a very real fraction) of the entirety of you as a person. This doesn't mean you are being fake, but it does mean that you are only accessing a particular set of authentic reactions; the ones which are workplace appropriate.
People are difficult, and you wouldn't be being paid for your job if it was so consistently fun and carefree that they could get people to do it for free. But the magic in choosing to authentically access a set of emotional responses allows you to do something that makes you literally irreplaceable: develop and cultivate human relationships.
Customers do come for the product, but they will leave fast and not come back if they don't like or connect with the people. Instead of thinking of it as "treating everyone the same," which doesn't allow for feeling the emotions of a human and will leave you leaning on policy instead of listening to the person in front of you, consider using your genuine passion for your work (even though it's late and your feet hurt), knowledge of the industry (whether it be CEO or wiping down counters) and the reliability of human connection to guide your interactions with the clients who come through your door. Policy is lovely, but allow it to guide the set of acceptable emotional responses you're using, not to dictate the words in your mouth. Those should be heartfelt, one-of-a-kind, and crafted for the individual conversation. There is magic in leaving a business feeling heard and helped, whether or not you liked the food, or the show, or the process itself. There is magic in being both professional and a person, and that is something that a robot, by definition, can never ever do.