A Modest Vocabulary Proposal

Posted: Tue, 14 May 2013 | permalink | 2 Comments

I would like to suggest that the word “unprofessional” be struck from the dictionary – and anyone who uses it struck with a dictionary. It is a word which conveys no useful information or proposal for action, and is thus nothing but meaningless noise.

The purpose of communication is to adjust another person’s process of cognition. I’ve heard it said that “all communication is persuasion”, which is quite true – you’re trying to persuade someone to change what they think. We can consider the intention and effectiveness of an attempt to communicate in this light.

What is someone trying to achieve when they label a person or behaviour “unprofessional”? If we’re being charitable, we would probably say that they’re trying to highlight that something is bad, or could be better. However, just stamping our foot and saying “bad!” isn’t enough – it’s also important to provide some information that the recipient can act upon.

The problem with the word “unprofessional” is that it really isn’t specific enough on the subject of “what is wrong”. Have you ever had someone say something like, “your behaviour yesterday was really unprofessional”? They’re assuming you know what they’re talking about – and you might well have a reasonable guess – but what if you guess wrong? Should you never do anything you did yesterday, just in case that particular thing was unprofessional?

When I’ve caught myself thinking, “that was unprofessional”, of my own behaviour, or someone else’s, I think about what caused me to think that. Once I drill down into it, I usually come to the conclusion that what I really meant was, “I don’t like that”. Since I’m not paid to like things, that’s pretty much irrelevant as a reason to tell someone not to do something.

On the occasions when I come up with something more concrete, it is invariably a more useful expression than “unprofessional”. Things like, “it frustrates the customer”, or “it pisses off the person sitting in the next cube” are a much better expression of why something is bad than “unprofessional”.

I’d encourage everyone to keep a careful watch over themselves and those around them for use of the word. When you catch yourself saying it (or thinking it), examine your motives more closely. Whatever the more specific adjective is, use that instead. If it just comes down to “I don’t like that”, at the very least say that to the person you’re talking to. Don’t try and hang anything grandiose on your personal prejudices. You might come off as being petty, but at least you’ll be honest.


From: anon
2013-10-02 01:58

Proclaiming a person unprofessional or an action or process, or even a creation? I agree that calling a person unprofessional is neither particularly helpful nor very polite, but in the other cases I see less of a problem.

From: Matt Palmer
2013-10-02 14:32

Hi anon, even if you’re applying the word to something that isn’t a person, you’re still not conveying any useful information. Having been told that an action, process, or creation is “unprofessional”, do I have enough information to correct the unprofessionalism? Or should I instead be told why you consider what you’re talking about to be unprofessional, so I can correct it?

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