Professionalism and the Travelling Mattress Sale

For the last year, I have been working as an order form writer for a friend who runs a business selling mattresses out of high school gyms as a form of fundraiser. This incredibly odd concept is difficult to explain to the people surrounding the different high schools we work in each weekend and as a result, it is a challenge to convince people that this is a legitimate business and not the questionable, possible pyramid scheme it seems to be. As a result, my boss has implemented dozens of new rules in an attempt to seem more “professional.”

When I started working for my friend a year ago, the sales were very casual and relaxed. I was allowed to wear any casual work clothes I owned. I was allowed to bring snacks and I was encouraged to bring a book or homework to do when the sales became slow. Over the last year, though sales have increased, my friend has made a lot of changes. For one thing, I now have a uniform to wear. I’m no longer allowed to eat at the table, look at my phone or computer, or occupy myself in any way not relating to mattresses, even when the sales are slow. While these all seem like rather standard workplace rules, they reflect a change similarly noted by Mills in White Collar. “The professional wears a badge of prestige. Any position that is ‘responsible and steady’ and, above all, that carries prestige may become known, or at least promoted by its members, a profession. Real-estate men become realtors; undertakers become morticians; advertising men and public-relations councils, radio commentators and gag men, interior decorators and special-effects experts all try to look and act ‘professional.’ This trend is allowed and encouraged, if not implemented” (Mills 138).

What I find odd about the desperation for the prestige granted to professionals, is that the changes enacted haven’t impacted sales at all. In fact, all of these changes have come about just in the last two months, at which point our sales have plateaued. Our level of professionalism hasn’t done anything to change the number of mattresses we sell. The last three weeks, we’ve actually done worse than we expected and have never been more professional. So professionalism does nothing for the business financially.

Why bother making rules that do nothing more than restrict the freedom of the employees then? I believe my friend, who I will call Colin from now on, is using the rules as a way to make himself appear more professional. As Mills explains, “the businessman, it has been thought, egotistically pursues his self-interest, whereas the professional man altruistically serves the interest of others” (Mills 138) The sales are intended to act as a fundraiser for a group at each of the high schools we visit. What Colin felt to be the ingenious aspect of this business was that this fact alone should have made him appear altruistic to the customers. “We are able to sell the mattresses at a bargain price because we aren’t paying for retail space and nearly 25 percent of the sale goes to the football team,” he’ll say. But it’s 2015 and people are familiar with this rhetoric. Pitches are no longer convincing when they sounds too selfless. It’s 2015 and professionalism is no longer a new fad like it was in Mills’s time. Professional is essentially a synonym for businessman and the public is much harder to convince of any altruism in business. I actually think we came off as more sincere when we seemed less professional because in a world where everyone is desperately grabbing at the prestige awarded professionals, a small, somewhat generous business like Colin’s seemed genuine and possibly refreshing.

More than anything, I believe the public is exhausted from the constant formality demanded in professional settings. A white collar worker “must always be the standardized loser: he must smile and be personable, standing at the counter or waiting in the outer office. In many strata of white collar employment, such traits as courtesy, helpfulness, and kindness, once intimate, are now part of the impersonal means of livelihood. Self-alienation is thus an accompaniment of his alienated labor” (Mills xvii). This expectation of self-repression is so common in all workplaces (including mine, now) that I believe it turns people away because it creates an atmosphere people resent.