What exactly does it mean to act professional? I’ve never heard a good answer to that question. For example, are jeans unprofessional? Is it unprofessional to use emoticons in your emails? Is it unprofessional to share a photo of your cat with your clients and business peers on LinkedIn?

I submit that there is no answer to that question, because that question is incomplete. What it means for a doctor to act “professional”, or a realtor to act “professional”, or a circus clown to act “professional” are all very different. So it’s simple right? Doctors wear lab coats, realtors have perfectly shined shoes, and circus clowns only use the highest-end makeup for their creepy face painting. Not so fast.

That’s a huge oversimplification.

Whether you act like a professional is not about what you wear or how you communicate. Although those play an important role in shaping first impressions, to focus on them as the heart of the concept, as many do, would miss the point. Whether you are seen as a professional depends on whether people believe you know what you’re talking about, and whether they believe you can do what you say, and whether they believe you can keep your cool while you do it.

Professionalism, real professionalism, is about trust. You can be trusted to do what you say you can do, to do it well, and not to create a bigger problem in the process.

Anyone can photograph a wedding. But will the images look great when they’re done? Anyone can shoot a corporate headshot, but will you feel good about yourself when they’re done? Anyone can take photos of a family with small children, but can they do it without getting frustrated? If the answers to those questions is yes, It doesn’t matter what they show up wearing, or whether their emails are full of smiley faces (as ours are all the time), you’re dealing with a professional.

We use “professionalism” as an analog for all the things someone can do to help people believe you are a professional. We take a wide array of concepts and boil them down to this one ambiguous concept.  And I suggest that for most professions, it’s hurting more than it’s helping.

Let’s consider a lawyer. Lawyers have some unfortunate stereotypes applied to them by the general public. They get labeled greedy, conniving, corrupt, among a lot of other nasty things. But in real life, I don’t know any lawyers that actually fit the stereotype. But few of them are giving off a more accurate first impression. These people are professionals, and they’re putting their best “professional act” foreword. But in this case, it’s often working against them with their clients. Every lawyer I’ve ever met has begun our relationship with a lot of classic “professionalism”, including a decidedly unfriendly attitude, but It’s never stayed that way long. These are usually friendly people, but their first impression implies they think that professionalism and friendliness are antithetical, and to preserve their professionalism they must act unfriendly.

Here’s the thing, and it’s widely corroborated among successful salespeople: Your clients want to do business with their friends. People want friends and they want to work with people who are friendly. They also want to work with professionals. This would be a conundrum if you continue to believe that professionalism is a static or universal concept of some kind. You ask yourself, “would a professional wear this outfit?”; “Drive this car?”; “write emails this way?”; “Have this kind of voicemail?” You’re really asking, “would someone who knows what they’re doing, who is able to deliver, and is able to keep their cool, do it this way?” Good luck getting a real answer.

Those questions don’t get you closer to acting like a professional, they just force you to compare yourself to someone else. Someone else who is also probably just comparing themselves to someone else, and hoping they’re getting it right.

There’s a much better question to ask: “How can I behave that will help my clients trust me?”

Yes, your clothing and word choices will matter, and your reputation will matter more than those. But whether you can develop a friendly relationship with that person matters the most to their decision to work with you. You could give almost zero attention to all the other things, and simply focus on developing friendly relationships, and you’d still do quite a bit of business.

There’s a dark flipside to this too. If you’re perceived as actively unfriendly, your deliberate portrayal of “professionalism” will probably work against the trust you need to develop. It might be seen as manipulative, or disingenuous.

Friendliness is a kind of vulnerability, and vulnerability can breed trust. So what does it mean to be friendly? Friendly means to act like a friend. Friends smile, they laugh, make jokes, feel concern, share flexibility, make exceptions, and get candid from time to time. Friends act like themselves. You don’t want to be professional, you want to be a professional who is friendly.

So don’t make professionalism a goal. Be yourself, do what you do with excellence, and make trust your goal. If you go for trusting relationships with your clients, you’ll find their impression of your “professionalism” comes along by itself.