INKED: When the personal becomes the professional

Celina Lam

Communication is the unexpected, never stagnant way of connecting and impacting people. Communication is also an ever-changing practice of expression through words, voices and physical appearance. When freedom of expression runs rampant, from hairstyles to clothing to tattoos. How do we, as communicators, balance personal expression with professional standards?

Self-expression has become a culture, a way of life. Expression is not relative to just words and actions anymore. Instead, expression is where the body and soul become one. Our bodies represent us, what we believe in and who we are. Tattoos are an expression of the body.

In recent years, tattoos have become a growing trend among young professionals. As an inked communicator, getting my first tattoo took much thought and consideration. At 16, a tattoo was already on my bucket list. Little did I know I would enter a profession where communication directly represents the person I am. In communication, how I should look and behave is often dictated by conservative traditions of professionalism and the strict ethical standards in workplaces.

Body ink started as a tribal ritual, where members inked themselves to represent different tribes. Since, tattoos evolved to become a form of art, an outlet for self-expression. Nevertheless, tattoos in the professional world are often deemed unprofessional and a potential misrepresentation of company values and ethics. Early on, we are taught to not bring the personal into the professional. Yet, tattoos go against that nature of this teaching because of their personal representation. When the personal is brought into the professional, we must consider the impact our ink will have on our profession, and ultimately, the company we will work for. Tattoos go beyond our bodies; they become part of our daily and professional lives.

For me, this concept slowly took shape when a friend was declined a job at Starbucks. She had the experience and the skills, but she also had ink. She was well on par with the expectations of the company, but the tattoos left her on the sidelines. Thus, the tattoo I longed for forced me to contemplate the future, my profession and career

What you put out to others directly represents the person you are. Your appearance, tone of voice and choice of language – how you communicate – determine whether others will want to form a relationship. My tattoo was no longer just something I wanted; it would become the centerpiece of who I was and part of the communicator I would be.

This is where freedom of expression becomes a blur. Are we willing to sacrifice all form of self-expression in the name of professionalism? Or, are we willing to risk future opportunities for the sake of inner satisfaction?

As a communicator, we are constantly pulled between the worlds of expression and restraint. Our skill with words allows us to express the greatest thoughts, whereas rules and conservatism restrain us from fully embracing our freedom of speech. Ultimately, drawing the line is up to us.

Tattoos do not equate a lack of professionalism. Ink is not inappropriate. Rather, it is what we express through the ink that can impact our careers. Like anything, we must be careful with what we embed into our skin. Freedom of expression is not wrong. But as future representatives of an organization or person, what we express may indirectly affect the person we represent. In the world of communication, we are taught to be cautious with our words and transparent with our actions. Tattoos are the same. We need to be cautious with the art on our bodies and honest with ourselves on how it may affect our future.

I decided to go with the ink and don’t regret it. Go ahead, get a tattoo. Just remember, as communicators, we don’t just hold ourselves accountable. The weight of an organization or person is also in our hands. Think about it and tread softly.

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