The small apartment that I've occupied with my boyfriend for the past four years is often filled with the sound of laughter — lots of laughter. We speak to our two cats — and, honestly, to each other — in weird voices, and our pun usage is off the charts. We change the lyrics of popular songs or make up entirely original raps about utter nonsense for our own amusement, sometimes accompanied with dancing. I remember one night where we stayed up late trying to figure out exactly how to floss — as in, the once-popular arm-swinging dance move. We recorded videos of one another attempting to execute the move and then coached ourselves by comparing those to that clip of "the backpack kid" from Katy Perry's "Swish Swish" performance on SNL. We approached this training session with a meticulousness that was really all part of the bit, even if it was also totally in earnest. It's safe to say that these weird comedy routines, performed only for each other, are our love language.
Clearly, we are not serious people. So, it's been jarring to have a new sound ringing through our home over the last 13 months: work-voice. Every weekday, as I sit at my desk, typing away, I hear my boyfriend's deep voice, several octaves lower than the one he uses to serenade me and the cats, talking about "graphical user interface testing" and "cloud-based EHR." What work-voice has in common with our regular voices is that it too is nonsense, but it's a notably different type of nonsense than the kind we lovingly spew at one another for pleasure. Occasionally, there is still laughter, like the random loud laugh he'll release while in a virtual meeting, but it's different from the uncontrollable giggles that I'm used to hearing from him. It's more premeditated, less visceral. It's a new type of performance, not at all like his impeccable flossing act, of which I've grown so fond.
Since the start of COVID-19 and widespread work-from-home orders, so many of us have been confronted by an entirely new side of our partners, family members, and roommates. Seeing the workplace personas of those we share such intimate connections with has been strange, to say the least. It brings up questions of why they feel the need to have different work personas at all, complete with adopting different characteristics from the ones we know and love. It may even force us to examine the way we ourselves act in a work setting — even a virtual one.
According to behavioral scientist Dr. Sanna Balsari-Palsule, it's helpful to think about why people act differently at work than in their personal lives in terms of a spectrum, with two distinct catalysts at each end. "On one end, people act differently in professional settings because of their own goals," she explains. "It's all volitional on that end of the spectrum." This could mean that, in order to receive that promotion you want, you attempt to get your boss to notice you, and in order to do that, you act more extroverted than you are in your personal life. Or, perhaps you're looking to be made a team lead or project manager, so you adopt an assertive but sociable persona. "On the other end, people act differently in response to the actual work environment or the role they inhabit," she explains. For example, an open-plan office environment may encourage social interaction, which could make you act more extroverted. As for the pressures of a specific role or profession, if you work in the service industry, for instance, you may have to adhere to the role's norms and be more self-effacing for the sake of your job. Even if you're naturally suited for your profession, you likely have to play up certain aspects of your personality. Overall though, Dr. Balsari-Palsule says, "It's very common for people to act out of character at work."
For those who have only ever known their loved ones to be a certain way, it can be utterly disorienting to be exposed to another side of them now that our work lives are no longer kept separate from our personal ones. It raises the question of authenticity and makes us wonder how well we ever really knew these people at all. Dr. Balsari-Palsule says the question of whether our workplace personas are less authentic than the way we display ourselves in our everyday lives is an interesting one that depends on motivation and ability to switch in and out of that persona. "If again you are doing it for your own professional or personal development, then I think it can be authentic because you're doing it for yourself," she explains. "If you're adept at adapting this workplace persona and it becomes kind of a second nature and quite effortless, then again, I think it can be authentic."
Instead of spiraling, then, over whether the loud-talking and deeply professional man in the next room is an imposter, someone who has only been pretending to enjoy my jokes for all these years, I'm comforted to learn that my boyfriend isn't becoming a new person for work, but is actually being a more fully realized, authentic version of himself. "For a lot of people, there's something freeing about adopting these personas because you're able to achieve your goals, flex your personality, stretch yourself, and challenge yourself, and that can actually have benefits," Dr. Balsari-Palsule says.
Bringing together your workplace and home personas, like many of us have had to do over the last year, can also have a positive impact on our personal relationships because it requires a level of self-disclosure. "In psychology, self-disclosure is a theory that the gradual revealing of feelings and personal experiences can bring people together and create an increased sense of trust," Dr. Balsari-Palsule explains. "Self-disclosure is very important in relationships and has a number of benefits." For instance, you may discover that there are commonalities in the ways that you and your partner, roommate, or family member act on Zoom calls, which may open up new bonds. We can also gain greater understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the types of situations our loved ones deal with in their professional lives.
Of course, there is also potential for negative consequences. "As an example, you can have someone who is introverted at home, but when it comes to a Zoom call, they are suddenly the first person to be speaking, and speaking for large amounts of time on the call. When their partner or their roommate sees this completely different side, it can be a bit alienating," Dr. Balsari-Palsule says. Seeing the way that someone you love acts in a work setting could make you evaluate how you'd feel about them if you worked with them. I'm certainly familiar with this train of thought. Having never worked directly with a straight, white, cis man even once throughout my career, I have what are perhaps ungenerous ideas about the way many of them act in professional settings, and I sometimes find myself listening carefully to see if my boyfriend exhibits any of those rude behaviors. If I were ever to hear him talk over a coworker or say anything inappropriate on a Zoom call, it would undoubtedly have a profound effect on the way I see him. Thankfully, 13 months into eavesdropping on his workplace conversations, I haven't been disappointed in him. That's a fact I take great comfort in. I even feel this exposure has brought us closer because I now know that, though he may act a bit differently at work than he does at home, he's a respectful person, no matter the context. What a relief.
Dr. Balsari-Palsule also says that for many people, the pandemic has actually prompted a shift toward greater authenticity and transparency in all contexts, since the lines between our work and personal lives have been so blurred. I mean, it's not the most professional thing to have your partner accidentally enter your Zoom call because they wanted to show you a funny video, but being forced to experience that while maintaining eye contact with your boss and trying not to laugh, is a reminder that we are living in absurd times, and maybe we all should be more forgiving of each other. "In a way, [working from home because of the pandemic] has been a bit of an equalizer. Because it removed the office environment, which is often exhausting for a number of people and puts a lot of pressure on workplace personas, we're all kind of at the same level," Dr. Balsari-Palsule shares. "And because we have also all undergone this collective trauma of the pandemic, I think people have lost some of the pressure to assume personas in that way."
At the same time, for many who are working remotely, assuming a work persona might be a relief at times, especially since we only have to do it in short bursts during Zoom meetings instead of all day. Or, if you're like us, maybe your workday respite involves poppin' your head into the other room for a few laughs between calls. For me and my boyfriend, our individual workplace personas have actually become a part of our many bits; there's nothing I love more than joking several times a day about the big business boy whose loud-talking on Zoom keeps accidentally waking up our feline bosses, who are constantly falling asleep on the job.