COLLECTIVE EMOTIONAL LABOR
To thwart cynicism about the living room analogy, to catch it as it collapses in the face of other realizations, the company eye shifts to another field of emotion work—the field in which flight attendants interact with each other. This is a strategic point of entry for the company because if the company can influence how flight attendants deal with each other’s feelings on the job, it can assure proper support for private emotion management.
As trainers well know, flight attendants typically work in teams of two and must work on fairly intimate terms with all others on the crew. In fact, workers commonly say the work simply cannot be done well unless they work well together. The reason for this is that the job is partly an “emotional tone” road show, and the proper tone is kept up in large part by friendly conversation, banter, and joking, as ice cubes, trays, and plastic cups are passed from aisle to aisle to the galley, down to the kitchen, and up again. Indeed, starting with the bus ride to the plane, by bantering back and forth the flight attendant does important relational work: she checks on people’s moods, relaxes tension, and warms up ties so that each pair of individuals becomes a team. She also banters to keep herself in the right frame of mind. As one worker put it, “Oh, we banter a lot. It keeps you going. You last longer.”
It is not that collective talk determines the mood of the workers. Rather, the reverse is true: the needed mood determines the nature of the worker’s talk. To keep the collective mood stripped of any painful feelings, serious talk of death, divorce, politics, and religion is usually avoided. On the other hand, when there is time for it, mutual morale raising is common. As one said: “When one flight attendant is depressed, thinking, ‘I’m ugly, what am I doing as a flight attendant?’ other flight attendants, even without quite knowing what they are doing, try to cheer her up. They straighten her collar for her, to get her up and smiling again. I’ve done it too, and needed it done.”
Once established, team solidarity can have two effects. It can improve morale and thus improve service. But it can also become the basis for sharing grudges against the passengers or the company. Perhaps it is the second possibility
that trainers meant to avoid when in Recurrent Training they offered examples of “bad” social emotion management. One teacher cautioned her students: “When you’re angry with a passenger, don’t head for the galley to blow off steam with another flight attendant.” In the galley, the second flight attendant, instead of calming the angry worker down, may further rile her up; she may become an accomplice to the aggrieved worker. Then, as the instructor put it, “There’ll be two of you hot to trot.”
The message was, when you’re angry, go to a teammate who will calm you down. Support for anger or a sense of grievance — regardless of what inspires it—is bad for service and bad for the company. Thus, the informal ways in which workers check on the legitimacy of a grievance or look for support in blowing off steam become points of entry for company “suggestions.”