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Emotional Labor – The Injustice of It All

Hear ye, hear ye, there’s a new injustice in town! Forget the war on women, white privilege, and ecological carnaage. A greater demon is in our midst!

Emotional LaborThe latest whinge du jour is emotional labor. You know, that age-old problem of oppressed and misused hirelings being coerced by Big Management to be decent to other people while on the job. (I know! I’m just as outraged as you!)

Not only are all the huddled masses without marketable skills and/or creativity forced (in that progressive #firstworldproblems #poorme #donotreallyhavetojustdonotwantto kind of way) to work minimum wage jobs that—get this—only require the skills sets they actually possess, they also are figuratively bludgeoned into being nice to their customers!

As author Ned Resnikoff of the illustrious mscnbc.com tells us:

A Starbucks barista’s job is more than just serving coffee. [Wait for it…] She also needs to be polite, even friendly, to the customers. [The injustice!!!] If she does her job correctly, then maybe the customer will walk away feeling like the barista was actually happy to serve him—that it was not only her job, but a genuine pleasure. [When we’d prefer he realizes she wants to throat punch him for drinking coffee.] In many jobs, that sort of projected enthusiasm may just be a way of earning some additional tips on top of the employee’s base pay. But in other lines of work—including the occupations which fuel America’s growing low-wage service sector—proper emotional responses are mandatory. [As in they have to be nice, even if they don’t feel like it! Oh!]

Did you read that? She doesn’t just huck frothy hot beverages at the people paying her wage. Her oppressive, greedy, filthy-rich (obviously to all three) employer requires her to hand the cup to them politely and—the height of indecency—with a smile! Can you imagine? Not only must she provide him with his drink of choice, she must attempt to make the experience enjoyable! 

Showing my age, I will admit that back in the day when I worked in fast food and other service businesses, we just called this “customer service” or even “civility” or “manners.” Little did we know how degrading this was to our psyches! (Is the statute of limitations passed?!)

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve even expected this behavior from others. I take the shame and publicly confess:

  • About a decade ago I complained to management about an Appleby’s waitress who forgot to bring us water, didn’t provide silverware (even when asked), got both orders wrong (twice), stuck her thumbs in our food, slammed the food on the table while giving the stink eye, and yelled (no hyperbole) at my husband when he tried to flag her down using the (offensive, sexist, demeaning) phrase, “Excuse me, miss?” (Her retort, “My name is not MISS! It is…” and she preceded to point to the name badge she had forgotten to put on. We still tipped her 15%. She didn’t deserve it.) What was I thinking?
  • Years ago I changed from one pediatrician to another because the first was brusque and impatient with my very sick daughter and the second was kind, gentle, and caring. I thought it was called “bedside manner”. Now I know I was demanding a “feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display … sold for a wage.” Shame on me!

Resnikoff gives a dire warning for impending emotional armageddon:

There’s no sure way to measure the level of emotional labor being required of the American workforce, but it does appear to be a growing trend as employers become better at extracting additional productivity from low-wage service workers. In fact, some of those jobs—I’m thinking here of Walmart greeters—seem to consist of nothing but emotional labor.

Such a trend might seem rather benign, given how much we’ve come to value customer service from clerks and restaurant workers. But should a person’s livelihood really hinge on her ability to pretend that she loves her job? It may be slightly uncomfortable to be served coffee by someone who clearly hates working long hours for a minimum wage, but it’s unclear that the best way to deal with that discomfort is through escalating worker coercion—especially when employee rudeness or visible unhappiness helps to make their low wages and poor working conditions visible.

By all means, if you don’t love your job—or are just feeling cranky, tired, or bored—you should stick it to the customers! There are always more where that guy came from. Because feelings!

Resnikoff thinks this is a growing trend? I may be an old coot, but back when we walked in waist deep snow uphill (both ways) to school, everyone was expected to do this in every job and at every public function and every private event. If you wanted to curl in a ball to rock and cry and moan over your sorry lot in life, you went in the closet and shut the door. You got it out of your system and then put on your big girl pants. And you wiped your eyes and used Visine before anyone saw you again.

How old is this author? His first job of record began in 2006. (After working for the stellar msnbc last year he moved to Al Jazeera…so that tells you something.) That likely puts him way up there in his late 20s, über mature and overflowing with life experience. Still, isn’t his generation supposed to comprise the quintessential googlers of all time? Doesn’t he have the wherewithal to look this up? Can’t he find evidence that the tyrannical “emotional labor” he bemoans has historically been about conviviality and not making your personal problem’s everyone’s business (particularly not the business of your boss’s business)?

Heck, what does it matter. We have bigger things to worry about, like emotional justice and equality. Let the whining commence!

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Ginger February 24, 2015, 6:11 pm

    Wow— are we sure msnbc isn’t just trying to become The Onion? I can’t believe this is a true “news” story!

  • Alison Moore Smith February 24, 2015, 8:55 pm

    Haha, truth to power, Ginger! Is it April 1 already???
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Cranberry Veggie Quinoa SaladMy Profile

  • Cambendy February 24, 2015, 10:43 pm

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Expecting a good attitude is oppressive?

  • Dan March 1, 2015, 8:57 pm

    What is the world coming to? Oh, yea, no freedom and socialist “equality.” Great.

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