Emotional Labor

Have you ever been told to smile? Have you ever been told to smile in the workplace? If so, you’ve been asked to perform ’emotional labour’, and it may have been part of your job. The more low-paid/low status your job, the more likely you are to be required to provide these fake emotional services on top of whatever else you’re doing, be it serving food or scanning grocery items. That’s the shitty thing about it.

Except if you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter how far up the ladder you climb, it’s likely you’ll still be expected to smile.

My first job was teaching in a girls’ high school. The principal was (and still is) a woman, who has been awarded the prime minister’s thing for leadership (by the way). Being a good leader doesn’t necessarily involve much smiling. But one year after prize giving, one of the parents said to this principal, ‘If only you cracked a smile every now and then.’

We were discussing this in the staffroom, and me being a first year teacher, lessons from teachers’ college were fresh in my mind. See, what I’d been taught as a beginning teacher — not much older than the kids I was teaching, and a lot younger than any of the parents — was to keep a neutral face. Here’s the reason: teenagers love to work teachers up. Especially young teachers in cheap polyester suits. If you walk into the classroom all happy happy joy joy, “Great! Fantastic! Awesome!” then some little asshole will try and bring you down.  Pessimistic, perhaps, but true, especially in the tough schools. I’ve accidentally walked into a group of year tens with an abundance of enthusiasm and some little asswipe piped up with, ‘You’re happy today, miss. Did you finally get some nookie last night?’

So something like that happens, and then what happens to your smile? Do you keep it pasted across your face? Nope. Any fool can recognise a fake smile a mile off. Far better to keep your face in neutral to deal with the inevitable range of emotions which will confront you in any given hour teaching in a high school full of emos teenagers.

I ran this past my boss, and she agreed that the neutral face thing was hearty advice. We all wondered if a male principal would’ve been expected to grin all during prize giving like an idiot.

Interestingly, our deputy principal was male, and he was an expert smiler. The students called him ‘Guy Smiley’ behind his back.


It was Arlie Russel Hochschild, a sociologist from University of California-Berkeley who coined the term “emotional labor” in her book The Managed Heart (1983), to describe a work situation where the requirement of literally and figuratively loving the job “becomes part of the job,” which is what you can imagine from nurses, doctors, waiters, teachers, even bill collectors and call center agents.

The Manila Times

Why Faking Enthusiasm Is The Latest Job Requirement from Fast Company

Stop Telling Me To Smile Already from The Frisky

Weight Watchers and Emotional Labor is interesting because it outlines a slightly different kind of emotional labor:

Weight Watchers’ strategy of cultivating loyalty among employees and identifying them as “leaders” is far from unique. Many jobs—particularly low-wage service sector jobs, staffed predominantly with women—have similar approaches to labor management. This is an element of what sociologists call “emotional labor“: this sort of labor encompasses not just the work that goes into demonstrating a particular feeling in front of customers, but also the ways in which managers will try to condition a particular emotional state into their employees.

Which job has the highest requirements for emotional labour? If you guessed flight attendant, you guessed right.

Bitchy Resting Face and The Tyranny Of The Smile: Why does everyone expect women to be smiling all the time? from Slate. I definitely have bitchy resting face, or probably more accurately ‘bitching concentrating face’. I appreciate the video and the concept and it needs a name but I haven’t quite put my finger on why I cringe a bit at the word ‘bitchy’. But I love this: Why I love my bitchy resting face.

Should we take heart in the fact that it’s not only members of the female dominated service industries who are subject to being told how to hold their face? Today LeBron James scowls after ‘doing something awesome’ and the media wonders why all the athletes are scowling now.

Scientific American points out that ‘Facial expressions have long been thought to be reliable indicators of a person’s true feelings.‘ This may be true, but how good are we, really, at reading them? It’s dangerous to assume you know what someone is thinking based on their expression only, and few things more annoying than being told you’re in a bad mood when you’re not. The same article points to research that smiling is a form of submission, and indicates you’re probably going to lose a fight, which pretty much explains to me why LeBron James and co don’t smile. Why should they?

‘Smile Surgery’ Is Becoming Popular With South Korean Women from Slate

Related to smiling, have you ever been told not to ‘pout’? What is pouting, anyhow? Isn’t it simply an absence of smiling? In this segment of The Grahame Norton Show, Keira Knightly explains how she was told to stop ‘pouting’ on the set of Pride and Prejudice. Norton wonders if he has a pout, to which another guest replies, ‘I think you’ve got a permanent pout’. Yet something tells me that ‘absence of smile’ in a man is more socially acceptable.