Everyone’s a V.I.P. at Work!

Posted March 11th, 2011 at 3:22 pm (UTC-4)

Next month, bosses across America will observe “Administrative Professionals Day” by taking their administrative professionals out to lunch.  Some will buy their “administrative assistants” flower arrangements for the occasion.

The day’s official theme (I kid you not): “This year, celebrate all office professionals.”

Talk about catchy!

"I crown thee Exalted Administrative Professional!"

Everyone’s an office professional.  “I’m not a secretary,” one woman here at VOA huffed at me one day.  Her proper title, she’d have me know, is “admin officer.”  The word “secretary” is just too servile for fluffed-up people and sensitive times.

I believe you could get arrested for calling someone a “maid.”  Don’t you know that these people are “domestic assistants”?  Or that the last airplane passenger who asked for more peanuts from a “stewardess” ended up in attitude-adjustment therapy and on the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list.

God help the hospital patient — sorry, I mean community wellness facility short-term resident — who cries out in the night, “Nurse! Nurse!”

"What did you call me, bud?"

If you want that painkiller, the proper call is “Health Care Professional!  Health Care Professional!”

And watch yourself the next time you’re in the market for a car.  Dealerships don’t have “salesmen” any more.  To spare them from low self-esteem, they’re “sales associates,” “account executives,” or “retail representatives,” and you’d best address them as such.

Even traveling salesmen, already the brunt of barnyard humor for their supposedly amorous romps with milkmaids, have earned society’s admiration.  They are now “territory managers.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of Arthur Miller’s classic Broadway play “Death of a Salesman.”  In it, washed-up salesman Willy Loman’s wife lashes out at the unfair treatment of her husband.  “Attention must be paid,” to him, she railed. “He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog.”

Salesman.  Friend.  Transaction professional!

Salesman. Friend. Transaction professional!

Attention is being paid to these folks.  We’re giving them more estimable titles.  These days, Miller would be shamed into calling his play, “Death of a Corporate Sales Representative.”

These gussied-up titles are “euphemisms.”  They’re agreeable-sounding terms replacing what are deemed to be offensive or disparaging ones.  They soften the stigma of certain jobs, or puff up workers’ status and self-worth.  Just as companies no longer fire people — they “downsize” or make “personnel adjustments” — we have invented all sorts of new and soothing job titles for just about everybody.

The standard example — though I think this is invoked mostly for fun to emphasize the absurdity of euphemisms — is calling a garbage man a “sanitary engineer.”  I was a garbage man when I went home to Ohio from college each summer.

Even worse, actually.  I was a sewer cleaner.

Garbage man as superhero!

Garbage man as superhero!

Nobody called me a “waste removal officer.”  The men who worked the trucks year-round — grizzled and grumbly guys who downed lunchtime shots and beers with their kielbasa sandwiches at corner bars — didn’t know the meaning of “politically correct.”

They called me “no-good dumb stupid college kid.”

And they didn’t say “kid,” either.

These days, might even they be attuned to the need to respect their fellow workers?  (Wait. Is “fellow” sexist?  Make that their “fellow and sister workers.”)

Possibly.  After all, mere janitors don’t empty our wastebaskets any more.  “Building-services specialists” do.  When did “custodian” become offensive?

Attorneys, who, lest you forget, are not mere “lawyers,” represent alleged “offenders” whom “law-enforcement officers” — not police and certainly not “cops” — arrest.  There are no crooks and thieves any more.  Prostitutes have become “escorts” or “sex workers.”

Stereotype alert!  Straighten those backs, and change the sign to read, "Wise ones."

Old people are “seniors,” “Third Agers,” or “seasoned citizens.”

Wait, you say.  Being old isn’t a job.  Oh, yeah?

I’m sure glad I didn’t get an engineering degree in school.  Everyone and his uncle is an engineer these days except train engineers.  (They’re “operators.”)  The woman who came to fix the thermostat in our office wore a name patch that identified her as a “building engineer,” and there’s a whole slew of “systems engineers” up in the tekky department.

Sorry.  Make that  the “Computing Services Division.”

Not long ago, someone appeared outside my window at work.  Not a window-washer.  Heavens, no.  He was the “vision clearance engineer.”

OK, I made that one up.  He was a “transparent wall maintenance officer.”   I didn’t make that up, but I stole it from someone who did.

I’m sure the fellow with the squeegee and window cleaner would laugh and share his impressive new title with his buddy, the “cemetery operative.”

That’s right.  You don’t think there are “gravediggers” any more, do you?

If we can’t come up with a lofty job title, we make each person the “coordinator” of something that looks spiffy on a business card.  And just in case someone doesn’t have a high-sounding job title, we refer to him or her as a “team member.”  It’s a practice borrowed from sports, meant to make the scrubs feel like superstars.

Meet the flat-surface adjustment agent!

Meet the flat-surface adjustment agent!

Attention must be paid to everyone!  Writer Michele McInerney at the Kansas City Business Journal found what she swears is an actual example.  Mere painters don’t paint houses in Kansas City, she reports.  “Liquid recoating specialists” do.

Wait till the team leaders who take America’s administrative professionals out to lunch next month hear about that one!

I must close by apologizing to any and all “bosses,” including my own many layers of them, for using that word in my opening paragraph.

In an insensitive moment, I forgot that “boss” has negative connotations.  “Bossy” people are autocratic, headstrong. “Boss” Tweed was a corrupt New York City politician.

Not my boss.

Not my boss.

Kids think Bossy is a cow.

Trail bosses cracked whips. Mob boss Al Capone ordered people “rubbed out.”

Even mobsters use euphemisms.

So I stand reminded.  It won’t be bosses taking their administrative professionals out to lunch next month.  It will be “employers,” “senior managers,” “level one supervisors,” and “administrators” who pick up the check.

Administrators and their administrative assistants, administering over burgers and beer.  One can only imagine the snappy repartee.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Gussied-up. Made up in a flashy way that doesn’t always have the desired effect of making one more attractive. The origin of this curious term is uncertain. One theory associates it with an early 20th-century piece of fabric called a “gusset” that was sewn into people’s clothes to make them fit better. Another idea is that it traces to the Australian slang word “Augustus” that refers to a “dandy” — a man who is exceptionally concerned about his appearance.

Repartee. Conversation punctuated by witty give and take.

5 responses to “Everyone’s a V.I.P. at Work!”

  1. Test Test says:

    Administrative assistants handle much greater responsibility than they used to. They coordinate employee meetings and days off; they handle the onboarding of new employees. “Recptionists” are paid to be friendly and look good; an administrative assistants are slowly learning the inner workings of the administration. It is in, in many cases, a pre-management position.

    Software engineers are equally or better educated than civil and electrical engineers. The derision afforded software engineers only occurs because so many have been brought in from India; were we limited to the quantity the US could supply itself, programmers would be paid as well as attorneys.

    The overdone job titles of today reflect, in part, the value society places on one’s ability to bullsh-t and assert one’s own upward ability (and further education). An secretary who insists she’s only a secretary will not be completing the company’s roster of compiling the expenditure on office supplies; how is she supposed to advance? Similarly, an accountant who insists they are merely an accountant will not make partner as fast as a “tax consultant” who implies that they do, and can, consult. A systems analyst makes the case that they are on track to be a business analyst and IT manager much better than one who calls themselves a programmer or a coder.

    Our titles imply things; one of them is what they soon will be doing.

    And not everyone accepts their fancy, high-falootin’, bullsh-t title. And it follows, there are additional responsiblities that they will not be doing any time soon.

  2. Ho says:

    What’s all this thing about “professional” ? Professional way of dressing. Professional way of behaving. Yet when it comes to real work, I wonder if work is really and actually done professionally.

  3. Dave says:

    the admin professionals are the ones who want to come to work in their pajamas on “casual fridays”.

  4. Pinky says:

    I’ve never needed extra praise for my job title, I get enough satisfaction from knowing I’ve done a job well. This is one of the many reasons I prefer blue-collar work despite a “professional” level of education, people are on the whole much more down-to-earth in my experience.

  5. tland says:

    To Pinky,

    You have an astute point there. I spent a couple of years in academia, and if you failed to address a professor as “Dr.” so-and-so, you could kiss your grade point average good-bye. Fancy titles DO enable professional peacocks to strut, but to be fair, they are also sometimes used in LIEU of deserved pay. I used to be flattered by titles such as “senior writer,” “correspondent,” and “director of news and information.” Now “writer” suits me fine. You’re right about blue-collar folk. You don’t run into too many people who insist upon being called “plumber first class” or “executive bricklayer.” Their work speaks for them.


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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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