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The Mask: How much of yourself do you show at the office?

When I was first asked to blog in the early days of GovLoop, I thought it sounded like fun but wondered what I’d write about every week. After all, being a government employee isn’t really part of my self-identity. It’s just my job. Sure, I enjoy my job well enough and have a strong work ethic, blah blah blah — but would I be able to dig up topics week after week?

Thankfully, that hasn’t been much of a problem. But lately I got to thinking about the self-identity thing. Not so much in terms of how much is work a part of me, but rather, how much of myself do I show at work?

In The Mask, Billy Joel sings: “we all have a face/that we hide away forever/and we take them out and show ourselves/when everyone has gone.” Going to work is kind of like that — we put on our “normal” masks and stow the freak flags safely away. But at some point, are we losing our individuality? Doesn’t that lead to a blander workplace?

I didn’t think much about this in my previous workplace. I’d been there 11 years, and we all knew each other pretty well. The fact that it was a small town made “hiding” even harder. It was only when I moved to a new state that I encountered the concept of “office persona,” so to speak. The new office was pretty subdued, a quiet place with a few rabble rousers (who are quiet about it). Enter me in all my freak-flag glory.

I think at first everyone was pretty surprised, in a don’t-know-what-to-make-of-it way. I think I shocked them with my exuberance. But once that wore off, I think for the most part they appreciate my energy and flair. They know I’m the Halloween cheerleader, the Green Team cheerleader, the whatever cheerleader. I think they have come to expect that I’ll do something outlandish. Like, say, take a week off to travel 1,000 miles to model a dress made from Mountain Dew cans (see pics on my page).

I like to think that my free self-expression inspires others to do the same. I don’t expect there to be too many others out in my sector of the galaxy, but there was a noticeable difference between my first Halloween at the office and the second. And that’s all I ask for: a little progress every year, drawing people out of their humdrum work shells.

Our Dilbert-like cubicle society encourages blandness. Sameness. No rocking the boat. There’s a great Spongebob episode about being “normal;” in the end, he realizes he’s lost everything about himself by trying to fit in. And while we have to adhere to certain standards of professionalism, that doesn’t mean we have to become as grey as the cubicle walls around us (or as pore-less as normalized Spongebob).

Think of how it feels to find out something really interesting about a coworker — that he grows bonsais, for example, or scuba dives. Or writes poetry, or is really into a particular craft. Wouldn’t it be great if every day we could celebrate each others’ talents and interests? Wouldn’t life be more colorful that way?

So pull out your mask and wear it to work. Maybe you express yourself by your cubicle decor (and not just pictures of your family). Maybe you do it through interesting footwear (platforms, anyone?). Maybe you push the envelope on casual Friday and wear something just slightly unexpected (but no short shorts and mesh tank tops, please). Just look in the mirror, and let your true self shine through.

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Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Glad to have your blog back, Geek Chick! Of course we have professional roles to play at work, but I highly agree with your point of not allowing that to bland us. I, too, work in a very subdued office (government plus the legal field), and one of my goals is to never let it suck the life out of me. I think that’s really a culture challenge for government and younger workers as well.

Profile Photo Paulette Neal-Allen

Yay! Welcome back, GeekChick! I’m not very good at keeping my masks separate. I’m loud, and obnoxious, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. Every thing I think travels across my face. I doubt that there would be much that would surprise my co-workers, especially after almost 10 years in the same office. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.

Profile Photo GeekChick

Excellent comment, Vicky! I agree. I’m not saying we should all go whole-hog, just trying to encourage us not to end up like Spongebob. I, for one, don’t want to be taking lessons from someone like Patrick. ; )