What Is A Profession? A Tip

Early September 2019. My wife and I have a free day in Zurich. From a menu offered by our hosts, we decide to take two tours. In the morning, we elect to tour the old city by foot—visiting buildings, gardens, squares, historical landmarks, and shops both old and contemporary. We have a terrific guide, who provides a splendid tour. She is filled with information about the city, past and present. She displays and draws on maps from different historical eras, speaks several languages, and tolerates the range of questions from our group—whether appropriate or foolish, terse or verbose.

After a light lunch, we proceed in the afternoon to our second tour: a walk through the art museum. There, after a brief introduction from an administrator, we pass through several selected galleries—spanning the art world from the middle ages to the contemporary era, from jewels to paintings, from Swiss artists to ones from different corners of the world. Again, we have a terrific guide, who provides an excellent tour. Armed with art books, she makes appropriate references to works that are not in the collection, and also to artists from other art forms. She impresses us with her ability to shift languages, invoke diverse terminology, and draw on appropriate examples from a range of art forms.

We express our gratitude to the guides, who welcome our approbation. But then, a crucial difference emerges. With respect to the first guide, we ask whether we can offer her a tip. She graciously says that the tip is not necessary, but she happily accepts the tip and places it in her hip pocket. A few other members of the tour follow suit.

With respect to the second guide, we do not make a similar gambit. Indeed, it does not ever occur to us. Rightly or wrongly, we believe that the guide would be insulted, and others in our small touring group would question the appropriateness of the gesture.

Why this differentiation? And is it appropriate?

The short answer: the guide in the art museum presents herself as a professional, in her dress and demeanor. She is introduced to us by an administrator at the museum, who calls her “Doctor,” and who describes her educational background. And she treats members of the tour—whose backgrounds as educators are known to her—as peers.

In contrast, the guide of the city simply appears without introduction and is dressed informally. She does not indicate anything about her educational background, nor does she signal any knowledge of the identities of the tourists. And the book of maps to which she occasionally refers appears to have been assembled by herself.

In the cultures with which I am familiar, we tip individuals who serve us, and we don’t tip individuals who present themselves as peers and whom we regard in that way. Just as my wife and I, as professors, would not expect a tip were we to lead a delegation from Colombia or China around campus, so, too, the guide in the art museum might feel belittled if we offered her a tip—though not, perhaps, if we invited her for coffee after her job has been completed.

But is this right? Just because we distinguish traditionally between “service worker” and “peer,” should we? If the competence and essential performance are identical, should we make a distinction based on social labels?

I have no desire to cause an upheaval of the social order—even if I could. (There’s enough of that going on in the world these days!) But there’s a lesson that can be drawn from our experiences in Zurich.

It may well be the case that professions, as we know them, are disappearing from the work landscape. So many roles that used to be carried out by trained professionals are now carried out by paraprofessionals, if not by “bots” or other artificial intelligence devices. To be sure, there may well be physicians and physicists for a while longer; but even these individuals may be trained quite differently—perhaps no longer going to professional schools, perhaps no longer placing a few letters of the alphabet before or after their proper names.

What do I hope will remain? A sense of what it means to be a professional: to be well educated, to treat all individuals with dignity, to be proud of the work role that you have adopted, and—most crucial—to recognize ethical dilemmas, to ponder them, to try to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, and, whatever one decides, to seek to learn from one’s mistakes and to do better the next time. Traditionally we expect this kind of deportment from those who are called professionals; but I would like this set of attributes to be expected equally from both of our guides, and therefore, to be able to think of and treat them equivalently.

I would be saddened if we lost a sense of professionalism.

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One Comment on “What Is A Profession? A Tip”

  1. Howard Gardner November 14, 2019 at 3:25 pm #

    My wife and I are hardly jet-setters, but we are in Milan and we jusr had a wonderful tour of the central city. The guide is clearly professional– so much so that she would not even give us her personal e-mail– just that of the organization for which she works. Still, we wanted to express her appreciation. So, having learned that she has two young children, and that one of them has been ill, I gave her a significant ‘thank you” bank note and told her to please buy a gift for her children.

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