ACHIEVING THE TRANSMUTATION
To the extent that emotion management actually works—so that Bloody Marys do not spill “by accident” on white pants suits, and blowups occur in backstage offices instead of in airplane aisles —something like alchemy occurs. Civility and a general sense of well-being have been enhanced and emotional “pollution” controlled. Even when people are paid to be nice, it is hard for them to be nice at all times, and when their efforts succeed, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
What makes this accomplishment possible is a transmutation of three basic elements of emotional life: emotion work, feeling rules, and social exchange.
First, emotion work is no longer a private act but a public act, bought on the one hand and sold on the other. Those who direct emotion work are no longer the individuals themselves but are instead paid stage managers who select, train, and supervise others.
Second, feeling rules are no longer simply matters of personal discretion, negotiated with another person in private but are spelled out publicly —in the Airline Guide to Stewardess and Steward Careers, in the World Airways Flight Manual, in training programs, and in the discourse of supervisors at all levels.
Third, social exchange is forced into narrow channels; there may be hiding places along shore, but there is much less room for individual navigation of the emotional waters.
The whole system of emotional exchange in private life has as its ostensible purpose the welfare and pleasure of the people involved. When this emotional system is thrust into a commercial setting, it is transmuted. A profit motive is slipped in under acts of emotion management, under the rules that govern them, under the gift exchange. Who benefits now, and who pays?
The transmutation is a delicate achievement and potentially an important and beneficial one. But even when it works—when “service ratings” are high and customers are writing “orchid” letters—there is a cost to be paid: the worker must give up control over how the work is to be done. In Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), Harry Braverman argues that this has been a general trend in the twentieth century. The “mind” of the work process moves up the company hierarchy, leavingjobs deskilled and workers devalued.3 Braverman applies this thesis to physical and mental labor, but it applies to emotional labor as well. At Delta Airlines, for example, twenty-four men work as “method analysts” in the Standard Practices Division of the company. Their job is to update the forty-three manuals that codify work procedure for a series of public-contact jobs. There were no such men in the 1920s when the flight engineer handed out coffee to passengers; or in the 1930s when Delta hired nurses to do the same; or in the 1940s when the first flight attendants swatted flies in the cabin, hauled luggage, and even helped with wing repairs. The flight attendant’s job grew along with marketing, becoming increasingly specialized and standardized.
The lessons in deep acting—acting “as if the cabin is your home” and “as if this unruly passenger has a traumatic past”—are themselves a new development in deskilling. The “mind” of the emotion worker, the source of the ideas about what mental moves are needed to settle down an “irate,” has moved upstairs in the hierarchy so that the worker is restricted to implementing standard procedures. In the course of offering skills, trainers unwittingly contribute to a system of deskilling. The skills they offer do not subtract from the worker’s autonomous control over when and how to apply them; as the point is made in training, “It will be up to you to decide how to handle any given problem on line.” But the overall definition of the task is more rigid than it once was, and the worker’s field of choice about what to do is greatly narrowed. Within the boundaries of the job, more and more actual subtasks are specified. Did the flight attendant hand out magazines? How many times? By the same token, the task to be accomplished is more clearly spelled out by superiors. How were the magazines handed out? With a smile? With a sincere smile? The fact that trainers work hard at making a tough job easier and at making travel generally more pleasant only makes this element of deskilling harder to see. The fact that their training manuals are prepared for them and that they are not themselves entirely free to “tell it like it is” only illustrates again how deskilling is the outcome of specialization and standardization.
Sensing this, most of the flight attendants I observed were concerned to establish that theirs was an honorable profession requiring a mastery of “real” skills. I was told repeatedly that there was a law school graduate in the incoming class at the Training Center and that a dentist, a librarian, and a botanist were serving on line. At the same time, they generally expressed frustration at the fact that their skills in rescue and safety procedures were given soft play (how many tickets can you sell by reminding passengers of death and danger?) whereas their function as meal servers was highlighted. As one flight attendant put it eloquently:
I have a little bit of pride in what I do. Of course I’m going to haul ass and try to do everything I conceivably can to get that breakfast for 135 people completed in forty minutes. That means that 135 people get meal trays, 135 people are supposed to have at least two beverages, 135 trays are collected and restowed. You can imagine how many seconds we have left to give to each passenger. But what kind of condition does that put me in when I finally reach the jump seat at the end of the flight, the time when a crash is relatively more likely? And do I even notice that man slumped over in his seat? That’s really my job.
Thus because passengers see them—and are encouraged by company advertising to see them —as no more than glamorous waitresses, flight attendants usually resented the appearance of working at a low level of skills, and had to cope with this resentment. But the ways in which these two functions—managing rescue operations and serving food—are combined, and the relative priority given to each, cannot be influenced by the workers or even the trainers. Such things are determined by management.