EMOTIONAL LABOR AND THE REDEFINED SELF
A person who does emotional labor for a living must face three hard questions that do not confront others, the answers to which will determine how she defines her “self.”
The first one is this: How can I feel really identified with my work role and with the company without being fused with them? This question is especially salient for younger or less experienced workers (since their identities are less formed) and for women (since a woman is more often asked to identify with a man than vice versa). For these groups, the risk of identity confusion is generally greater.
To address this issue successfully, the worker has to develop a working criterion for distinguishing between situations that call on her to identify her self and situations that call on her to identify her role and its relation to the company she works for. To resolve the issue, a worker has to develop the ability to “depersonalize” situations. For example, when a passenger complains about the deprivations of the Friendship Express, a flight attendant who cannot yet depersonalize takes it as a criticism of her own private shortcomings. Or when a passenger is delighted with the flight, such a worker takes the compliments as a reflection on her own special qualities. She would not, for example, take such a compliment as a sign that a strong union stand has improved the ratio of workers to passengers. She interprets events so that they easily reflect on her “true” self. Her self is large, and many events reflect on it.
All companies, but especially paternalistic, nonunion ones, try as a matter of policy to fuse a sense of personal satisfaction with a sense of company well-being and identity. This often works well for awhile. Company emphasis on the sale of “natural niceness” makes it hard for new workers to separate the private from the public self, the “at-ease me” from the “worked-up me,” and hard to define their job as one of acting. In a sense, the two selves are not estranged enough. Such workers do not have the wide repertoire of deep acting techniques that would enable them to personalize or depersonalize an encounter at will. Without this adaptability, when things go wrong (as they frequently do), they are more often hurt, angered, or distressed.
At some point the fusion of “real” and “acted” self will be tested by a crucial event. A continual series of situations batter an unprotected ego as it gives to and receives from an assembly line of strangers. Often the test comes when a company speed-up makes personal service impossible to deliver because the individual’s personal self is too thinly parceled out to meet the demands made on it. At this point, it becomes harder and harder to keep the public and private selves fused. As a matter of self-protection, they are forced to divide. The worker wonders whether her smile and the emotional labor that keeps it sincere are really hers. Do they really express a part of her? Or are they deliberately worked up and delivered on behalf of the company? Where inside her is the part that acts “on behalf of the company”?
In resolving this issue, some workers conclude that only one self (usually the nonwork self) is the “real” self. Others, and they are in the majority, will decide that each self is meaningful and real in its own different way and time. Those who see their identity in this way are more likely to be older, experienced, and married, and they tend to work for a company that draws less on the sense of fusion. Such workers are generally more adept at deep acting, and the idea of a separation between the two selves is not only acceptable but welcome to them. They speak more matter-of-factly about their emotional labor in clearly defined and sometimes mechanistic ways: “I get in gear, I get revved up, I get plugged in.” They talk of their feelings not as spontaneous, natural occurrences but as objects they have learned to govern and control. As one flight attendant, who had come to her own terms with this issue, explained: “If I wake up in a sunny mood, I spread it around to the crew and passengers. But if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, all depressed, I keep to myself on the flight until I’m out of it. The way I think of it, when I’m on, I’m out; when I’m down, I’m in.”
Yet workers who resolve the first issue often find themselves brought up more sharply against a second one. While they have the skills of deep acting, they can’t always bring themselves to use them. “How,” the second question goes, “can I use my capacities when I’m disconnected from those I am acting for?” Many flight attendants can’t bring themselves to think of the airplane cabin as their living room full of personal guests; it seems too much like a cabin full of 300 demanding strangers. The closest they can come to a bow from the heart is to disguise their feelings through surface acting. Many of them want to do deep acting but cannot pull it off under speed-up conditions, and so they fall back on surface acting.
For this reason, a new issue becomes central for them: whether one is “being phony.” If a worker wants to put her heart into the work but can only lend her face to it, the risk for her lies in thinking of herself as “phony.” Among flight attendants, this word came up with surprising frequency. It was common to hear one worker disparage another for being phony (for example, “She just laid it on in plastic”). But workers also seemed to fear that disparagement themselves; it was common to hear a sentence begin, “I’m not a phony, but….” Talk about phoniness was serious because it was usually seen not merely as an instance of poor acting but as evidence of a personal moral flaw, almost a stigma.5
Thus the third issue arises: “If I’m doing deep acting for an audience from whom I’m disconnected, how can I maintain my self-esteem without becoming cynical?” There were those for whom the issue of phoniness—and self-esteem — was resolved by redefining the job. Although some blamed themselves for phoniness, others saw it as surface acting necessary and desirable in a job that positively calls for the creation of an illusion. The editors of an unofficial flight attendants’ newsletter, the Pan Am Quipper, described this stance succinctly: “We deal in the illusion of good service. We want to make passengers think they are having a good time. It is dangerous to take any of the abuse seriously; it is dangerous to take the job too seriously. Quipper is about laughing it off.”
To keep on working with a sense of honor a person has to stop taking the job seriously. On one side, hard experience forces the worker to associate less and less of herself with the job, while on the other side the job is whittled down to “maintaining an illusion.” It is no longer the sincere smile or the person that is now “phony.” What is phony is the “good time.” And it is the work it takes to bring off the illusion of a “good time” that becomes the problem. It is as if the Quipper’s editors, like the workers they speak for, are forced to say, appropriately enough, “the job is the problem, not us.” Then, for extra protection, there is the added message, “it’s not serious not attached to us!’
When a worker is asked to do deep acting for a great many people who are totally out of her control, she is put on the defensive. The only way to salvage a sense of self-esteem, in this situation, is to define the job as “illusion making” and to remove the self from the job, to take it lightly, unseriously. Less of the job reflects on the self; the self is “smaller.” But then so is the job. Neither the passenger nor the worker is really having “a good time.”
While some workers distance themselves from the job by defining it as “not serious,” others distance themselves from it in another way. For them, the job remains serious; but they are not seriously in it. When they cannot bring themselves to define phoniness (or surface acting) as either a necessary virtue or a feature of the job, they may “go into robot.” They use their faces as masks against the world; they refuse to act. Most of those who “go into robot” describe it as a defense, but they acknowledge that it is inadequate: their withdrawal often irritates passengers, and when it does they are forced to withdraw even further in order to defend themselves against that irritation. In either case—whether she withdraws by performing the work as if it were unserious or withdraws by not doing the emotional job at all—the worker is on the defensive.
In relation to each issue, emotional labor poses a challenge to a persons sense of self. In each case, the problem was not one that would cause much concern among those who do not do emotional labor— the assembly line worker or the wallpaper machine operator, for example. In each case, the issue of estrangement between what a person senses as her “true self” and her inner and outer acting becomes something to work out, to take a position on.
When a flight attendant feels that her smile is “not an indication of how she really feels,” or when she feels that her deep or surface acting is not meaningful, it is a sign that she is straining to disguise the failure of a more general transmutation. It indicates that emotion work now performed on a commercial stage, with commercial directors and standardized props, is failing to involve the actors or convince the audience in a way that it once did.
When feelings are successfully commercialized, the worker does not feel phony or alien; she feels somehow satisfied in how personal her service actually was. Deep acting is a help in doing this, not a source of estrangement. But when commercialization of feeling as a general process collapses into its separate elements, display becomes hollow and emotional labor is withdrawn. The task becomes one of disguising the failed transmutation. In either case, whether proudly or resentfully, face and feelings have been used as instruments. An American Airlines worker said: “Do you know what they call us when we get sick? Breakage. How’s that for a ‘positive attitude’? Breakage is what they call people that go to the complaint service to cancel for illness.” Or again, as a San Francisco base manager at United remarked ruefully: “And we call them bodies. Do we have enough ‘bodies’ for the flight?” Feeling can become an instrument, but whose instrument?