What does it mean to “sound professional?”

What does it mean to sound professional: dark-skinned woman speaks confidently to colleague

Professional communication encompasses everything, from the words we choose to how and when we deliver them. But what does it mean to “sound professional?”

At its core, it’s about context or how well a person “fits” within an organization’s culture. The problem is, what determines fit—and defines culture—too often carries significant bias. 

According to one study by the University of Chicago and the University of Munich, people with strong regional accents (PDF) earn up to 20 percent less than those who speak with a “standard” accent. 

Do these and other individuals truly sound less professional—or do they not sound “standard” enough?

The cultural bias that defines professionalism

What becomes “standard” in language is almost always a function of power. We speak English in the United States not because it’s indigenous to the land, but because England conquered colonial America.

As a result, we value and reward certain communication styles over others, not because they’re inherently better, but because they’ve become the “standard.”

In the world of work, understanding the historical dynamics around language is crucial to navigating the larger cultural context of “sounding professional.”

When we do it successfully, we reaffirm the power structure. When we don’t, we raise doubts about our ability to function within it.

Stigmatization of “The Other”

It’s not fair, but linguistic profiling is real. If your communication choices too often deviate from the dominant or prevailing norm, you’ll appear less competent. 

This doesn’t only happen at work—or with English. Many established languages with their own standards also have corresponding sets of stigmatized speech.

In Russia, the pejorative term nekulturny means “uncultured” but also carries connotations about class and communication ability. Among Spanish speakers, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are frequently criticized for speaking “bad” Spanish.

In the United States, you’re at greater risk of sounding “unprofessional” if:

What can members of these groups—and more importantly, the people positioned to empower them—do about it?

How to overcome bias around sounding professional

Step 1: Check yourself.

Many workplace communication blunders happen well before we open our mouths. 

That’s because even with perfect diction and an enviable vocabulary, low emotional intelligence can quickly steer interactions in an unprofessional direction, even if it’s unintentional.

High emotional intelligence, on the other hand, can help overcome many tricky communication challenges, demonstrating your professionalism more powerfully than words often can.

Whether you’re in one of the “at-risk” groups or a member of the “standard” club, examining your least productive beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes (about yourself and/or others) is a necessary step in fortifying your professional acumen.

Enhancing emotional intelligence

  • Build self-awareness. Do you know why certain people, ideas, or behaviors stir particular feelings, whether positive or negative? Are your reactions to these feelings appropriate for the setting? Do you make others uncomfortable?
  • Learn to self-regulate. How do you react to less-than-desirable news? How readily do you bounce back from a disappointment? What strategies can you use to maintain or regain emotional balance?
  • Maintain motivation. No matter how zen you are, unforeseen stressors are a given at work. Accept that you’ll never be able to fully control your emotions, but take power in knowing you can influence your feelings by exerting some control over your thoughts.
  • Possess and show empathy. Are you able to identify with other people’s perspectives and communicate in a way that reflects this? In what ways do you consider your colleague(s) before you speak or act?
  • Build a range of social skills. Sounding professional isn’t limited to being friendly. You’ll also need to know how to receive and deliver criticism, accept and provide praise, delegate or manage tasks, and share or absorb bad news. Bonus points for knowing how to make people laugh.

Remembering the familiarity principle

Also known as the Mere-Exposure Effect, the familiarity principle is a psychological phenomenon that explains our tendency to 1) prefer what we’re familiar with and 2) develop preferences through exposure.

On the positive side, this means maintaining a diverse workforce will increase your exposure (and thus, appreciation) for people and things that were previously “unknown.”

Unfortunately, it also means that many qualified candidates won’t receive interview calls, promotions, or even the grace afforded to their more “familiar” peers.

As an extension of building your emotional intelligence, challenge yourself to broaden your ideas about what professionalism looks like.

Step 2: Strive for impeccable, settle for deliberate.

Sounding professional isn’t about using “big” words, though it often includes industry jargon. It’s also not about speaking in a particular lilt, though your tone of voice definitely matters.

The best public speakers share several characteristics that make their communication effective, but the core reason their words are so powerful is intentionality.

Becoming more professional through deliberate speech

  • Learn how to listen. Becoming a better listener is one of those cheat codes we tend to overlook because we overestimate our listening abilities. In truth, most people wait to respond—or worse, eagerly rush to say nothing of value. Get comfortable with remaining silent and you just may absorb more. Remember: it’s okay to not respond immediately to everything being said.
  • Slow down. Smart people tend to speak quickly because their brains run faster than their mouths. Nervous smart people have it even worse. Either way, you may confuse the room or say things you regret. Slowing your speech will not only give you the time to choose your words carefully, it’ll also improve the odds of your message making the desired impact.
  • Remember your body. Nonverbal communication speaks volumes. You may think nothing of slumping down in a conference room, but at best, it conveys that you don’t understand the rules. At worst, it says you don’t care. Be mindful of your posture, facial expressions, and energy. Remember to look people in the eye. Neutrality and attentiveness matter.
  • Practice and record. A good way to test your communication skills is to see or hear them in action. Whether you use a webcam or speak to the mirror, use topics likely to come up at work and take note of when and why your confidence wanes or your communication falters. Don’t go too crazy with this, just get a sense of where you’re at and what you’d like to improve.
  • Immerse yourself in industry content. No matter what industry or role you’re in, there’s a good chance someone’s making content about it. Identify a few relevant podcasts and/or blogs and make note of how your favorite content creators speak about the industry. Internalize and appropriate what you can in ways that feel authentic. Bonus points for hanging out with people whose communication style you admire.

The worthwhile art of communication

If this sounds like a lot to think about, it is. But as you learn to maneuver through trial and error, you’ll emerge more adaptable, capable, and confident—qualities that scream professional (politely, of course).

For more articles and guides about the art of conversation, make sure to check out the Ruby blog.