My assumption is that humans rely heavily on an embedded framework of social contracts when engaging in social interactions. This is for sure both biological and cultural in origin.

I'm searching for a word that describes an ability to consciously disconnect the "cognitive auto-pilot" from this framework, to be able to act more professional and pragmatic.

John is very ____, even though he has a close personal relationship with Dave, he has no problems in keeping a strictly professional relationship with him in regards to their joint venture.

(John's personal relationship conflicts with his professional relationship with Dave, but John has the ability to disregard from selected parts of the social framework that he deem unsuitable)

Our accountant Jenny is ____ embodied; even though she was secretly in love with Dan, she had no second thoughts about reporting him to the disciplinary board for his unmotivated spending.

(Jenny's social framework has a lot to say about how she should act towards Dan since she is in love with him, but she has a high ability to disregard the influences from the social framework that conflicts with her professional role.)

The brothers Tony and José grew up together and both joined the Mafia at around the same time. They had a strong brotherly love and always stood up for each other in times of trouble. However, when Big Boss ordered Tony to put a bullet between José's eyes, it was like Tony had never known him and complied without hesitation, even if it greatly saddened him.

The only word that I can think of that relates to the ability to consciously bypass the social framework is sociopath, although this have very negative associations. For example :


a person with a psychopathic personality whose behaviour is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.

Are there any neutral but precise words I can use to describe ones ability to consciously distance oneself from influences from the embedded social framework?

I'd consider terms like cold, professional, high integrity as way too general and imprecise here.

  • 1
    Welcome to the ELU :-). These actions seem rather impersonal to me, but maybe that is also too general... (Side note: it doesn't affect your question, but there seems to be a typo in the first example: either he has a close relationship or we have...)
    – Lucky
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:34
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    All the suggestions are in the right area, but 'professional' fits just right in your examples: professional = not letting personal feelings to sway decisions on what is best for the company. It is very neutral (or maybe even positive).
    – Mitch
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:44
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    I'm with ermanen here, your two examples seem positive qualities to me. The reason you are attracting words like sociopath is because you are defining the missing concept in terms of disregarding social norms. IMO you have thus shot yourself in the foot. You need a word, not for disregarding social norms, but for compartmentalisation. As Mitch says, professionalism involves not allowing oneself to be influenced by extraneous factors like personal emotions. (continued)
    – David Pugh
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:53
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    Unfortunately there is no English adjective neatly meaning "full of integrity". German has absolutely what you are looking for in sachlich. If I could pick one word to be borrowed from the-rest-of-the-world into English, it would be that one. One of its possible partial translations is "objective", which would actually fit your two examples.
    – David Pugh
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 15:58
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    @Alex: Looks better now. I'm deleting my comments. You can delete also. Upvoted! :)
    – ermanen
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 17:09

9 Answers 9


I like David's compartmentalizing—it's more general than professional and thus fits the question better in my opinion. My dictionary even seems to use it for just this purpose:

divide into sections or categories: he had the ability to compartmentalize his life

Stick the world social in front of it and you've got yourself a new term:

John is very good at social compartmentalization.

Our accountant, Jenny, has strong social compartmentalization.

They're not necessarily cold, and they're not just professional; they act appropriately no matter what role they're in at the time.

  • You know, I actually like this suggestion the best. Not 100% spot on, but it feels like this is best describing the aspect that I'm most interested in here.
    – Alex
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:29

John and Jenny are simply being professional. To not report Dan would be unprofessional.

  1. suitable or appropriate for somebody working in a particular profession

professional conduct/misconduct

opposite: unprofessional

Or, John has the ability to compartmentalize his social and personal life.

Like @ermanen observed, your title seems to asking for something different.

A (somewhat) neutral word for someone who disregards norms is non-conformist

a person who does not follow normal ways of thinking or behaving

  • Although professional would be fitting, isn't it a quite broad term? If I would state "I'm professional", would that really communicate that I have a good ability to put emotions regarding social expectations to the side?
    – Alex
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 20:50
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    In many cases yes. It depends on the alternatives. If a surgeon bursts into tears at the sight of blood, he is behaving unprofessionially. If a police officer refuses to arrest a close friend who has committed a crime, he is behaving unprofessionally. If a lawyer does not argue ably in court because he doesn't like his client he is behaving unprofessionally. In all cases, a strong emotional response or motivation is inappropriate to the performance of the job, and is therefor unprofessional. Commented May 29, 2015 at 0:00

It may not be a perfect fit to what you're asking, but it seems close:


not influenced by strong feeling; especially : not affected by personal or emotional involvement


able to think clearly or make good decisions because not influenced by emotions

  • I'm quite attracted to the second description of the word, that is more to what I'm looking for.
    – Alex
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 20:54

Aloof would work. From Dictionary.com:

  1. At a distance, especially in feeling or interest; apart: They always stood aloof from their classmates.

  2. Reserved or reticent; indifferent; disinterested: Because of his shyness, he had the reputation of being aloof.

For your second sentence, the noun form would be aloofness.

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    Wouldn't that describe social distance rather than an ability to control the influence of ones embedded social framework?
    – Alex
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 16:43
  • It could be social, emotional, or mental distance. An aloof person is able to do things without factoring in their own emotions about it.
    – Nicole
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 12:24

Looking at your examples, and resolutely ignoring the red herring of disregarding social norms, I would suggest "objective". This is a poor but common translation of the word that rings the bell at the top of the fairground whatsit, the German sachlich.


While I agree with professional, you could also use businesslike, while for your second example, business would work, since the phrase "all business" is fairly widely used.


The ability to control the influence of ones embedded social framework in a commercial setting requires the willpower to maintain a professional level of integrity.

Willpower –MW

the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)

... (or tattle-tail on your lover/off someone).

John is very professional. Jenny is very business-oriented. Tony is a psychopath. The one thing they all have in common is their exorbitant willpower.

"... they realized that to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't."Keyser Soze


John and Jenny could be called mavericks. From thefreedictionary.com...

Maverick - a person who shows independence of thought and action, especially by refusing to adhere to the policies of a group to which he or she belongs.


You could probably use 'pragmatic' or 'utilitarian' in both these contexts. However, they have different nuances. Pragmatic is close to 'down to earth' and utilitarian could be slightly pejorative and imply exploitation of some sort.

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