Nation of Beancounters

The demand for emotional labour

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on February 4, 2013

The concept of ‘emotional labour‘ was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild who used it to describe how some professions require people to present as expressing certain emotions regardless of how they feel.

The idea is that the waiter who smiles and tells you to ‘have a nice day’ doesn’t really feel happy to see you and doesn’t particularly care how your day will go, but he’s asked to present as if he does anyway.

The idea has now moved on and this particular example is considered ‘surface acting’ or ‘surface emotional labour’ while ‘deep acting’ or ‘deep emotional labour’ is where the person genuinely feels the emotions. A nurse, for example, is required to be genuinely caring during his or her job.

More here. The article reads this as an attempt to convert laborers into ‘deep emotional’ workers.

My own reading is different. Worker behavior is hard to monitor. How do you know that the worker is being care with the merchandise even when you can’t observe her? How do you know that the cashier is smiling – and making customers feel better – even when the customer is timid and unlikely to complain (but likely to never come back)? How do you know the nurse will replace everyone’s bedpans on time – and spare helpless and clueless people hours of misery – even when her supervisor is on leave?

Workers that are genuinely and emotionally connected to their job are more likely to do all these things. The trick then is to find the ones who are connected. The performance reviews of Pret etc (see article) is thus a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. You aren’t “required” to feel deeply, but rewarded with this high paying job if you do. Less emotional workers can take their labour to places that cares less about such feelings, pays workers less and charge customers lower prices. This is a bit like how McDonald’s doesn’t hire the highest quality chefs.

A modern sociologist may disagree, and insist that all types of labour are “produced” – i.e. created – by the system. That may well be true but (a) this is the reason that the system produces such labour, (b) so is it really such a bad thing?


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