EXPLORING THE. MANAGED HEART
The one area of her occupational life in which she might be “free to act,” the area of her own personality, must now also be managed, must become the alert yet obsequious instrument by which goods are distributed.
— C. Wright Mills
In a section in Das Kapital entitled “The Working Day,” Karl Marx examines depositions submitted in 1863 to the Children’s Employment Commission in England. One deposition was given by the mother of a child laborer in a wallpaper factory: “When he was seven years old I used to carry him [to work] on my back to and fro through the snow, and he used to work 16 hours a day…. I have often knelt down to feed him, as he stood by the machine, for he could not leave it or stop.” Fed meals as he worked, as a steam engine is fed coal and water, this child was “an instrument of labor.”1 Marx questioned how many hours a day it was fair to use a human being as an instrument, and how much pay for being an instrument was fair, considering the profits that factory owners made. But he was also concerned with something he thought more fundamental: the human cost of becoming an “instrument of labor” at all.
On another continent 117 years later, a twenty-year-old flight attendant trainee sat with 122 others listening to a pi-
lot speak in the auditorium of the Delta Airlines Stewardess Training Center. Even by modern American standards, and certainly by standards for women’s work, she had landed an excellent job. The 1980 pay scale began at $850 a month for the first six months and would increase within seven years to about $20,000 a year. Health and accident insurance is provided, and the hours are good.
The young trainee sitting next to me wrote on her notepad, “Important to smile. Don’t forget smile.” The admonition came from the speaker in the front of the room, a crew – cut pilot in his early fifties, speaking in a Southern drawl: “Now girls, I want you to go out there and really smile. Your smile is your biggest asset. I want you to go out there and use it. Smile. Really smile. Really lay it on.”
The pilot spoke of the smile as the flight attendant’s asset. But as novices like the one next to me move through training, the value of a personal smile is groomed to reflect the company’s disposition — its confidence that its planes will not crash, its reassurance that departures and arrivals will be on time, its welcome and its invitation to return. Trainers take it as their job to attach to the trainee’s smile an attitude, a viewpoint, a rhythm of feeling that is, as they often say, “professional.” This deeper extension of the professional smile is not always easy to retract at the end of the workday, as one worker in her first year at World Airways noted: “Sometimes I come off a long trip in a state of utter exhaustion, but I find I can’t relax. I giggle a lot, I chatter, I call friends. It’s as if I can’t release myself from an artificially created elation that kept me ‘up’ on the trip. I hope to be able to come down from it better as I get better at the job.”
As the PSA jingle says, “Our smiles are not just painted on.” Our flight attendants’ smiles, the company emphasizes, will be more human than the phony smiles you’re resigned to seeing on people who are paid to smile. There is a smilelike strip of paint on the nose of each PSA plane. Indeed, the plane and the flight attendant advertise each other. The radio advertisement goes on to promise not just smiles and service but a travel experience of real happiness and calm. Seen in one way, this is no more than delivering a service. Seen in another, it estranges workers from their own smiles and convinces customers that on-the-job behavior is calculated. Now that advertisements, training, notions of professionalism, and dollar bills have intervened between the smiler and the smiled upon, it takes an extra effort to imagine that spontaneous warmth can exist in uniform—because companies now advertise spontaneous warmth, too.
At first glance, it might seem that the circumstances of the nineteenth-century factory child and the twentieth-century flight attendant could not be more different. To the boy’s mother, to Marx, to the members of the Children’s Employment Commission, perhaps to the manager of the wallpaper factory, and almost certainly to the contemporary reader, the boy was a victim, even a symbol, of the brutalizing conditions of his time. We might imagine that he had an emotional halflife, conscious of little more than fatigue, hunger, and boredom. On the other hand, the flight attendant enjoys the upper-class freedom to travel, and she participates in the glamour she creates for others. She is the envy of clerks in duller, less well-paid jobs.
But a close examination of the differences between the two can lead us to some unexpected common ground. On the surface there is a difference in how we know what labor actually produces. How could the worker in the wallpaper factory tell when his job was done? Count the rolls of wallpaper; a good has been produced. How can the flight attendant tell when her job is done? A service has been produced; the customer seems content. In the case of the flight attendant, the emotional style of offering the service is part of the service itself in a way that loving or hating wallpaper is not a part of producing wallpaper. Seeming to “love the job” becomes part of the job; and actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort.
In processing people, the product is a state of mind. Like firms in other industries, airline companies are ranked according to the quality of service their personnel offer. Egon Ronay’s yearly Lucas Guide offers such a ranking; besides being sold in airports and drugstores and reported in newspapers, it is cited in management memoranda and passed down to those who train and supervise flight attendants. Because it influences consumers, airline companies use it in setting their criteria for successful job performance by a flight attendant. In 1980 the Lucas Guide ranked Delta Airlines first in service out of fourteen airlines that fly regularly between the United States and both Canada and the British Isles. Its report on Delta included passages like this:
[Drinks were served] not only with a smile but with concerned enquiry such as, “Anything else I can get you, madam?” The atmosphere was that of a civilized party—with the passengers, in response, behaving like civilized guests…. Once or twice our inspectors tested stewardesses by being deliberately exacting, but they were never roused, and at the end of the flight they lined up to say farewell with undiminished brightness….
[Passengers are] quick to detect strained or forced smiles, and they come aboard wanting to enjoy the flight. One of us looked forward to his next trip on Delta “because it’s fun.” Surely that is how passengers ought to feel.”2
The work done by the boy in the wallpaper factory called for a coordination of mind and arm, mind and finger, and mind and shoulder. We refer to it simply as physical labor. The flight attendant does physical labor when she pushes heavy meal carts through the aisles, and she does mental work when she prepares for and actually organizes emergency landings and evacuations. But in the course of doing this physical and mental labor, she is also doing something more, something I define as emotional labor This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others—in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.
Beneath the difference between physical and emotional labor there lies a similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul —that is used to do the work. The factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer, regarding that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?3
This is an old issue, but as the comparison with airline attendants suggests, it is still very much alive. If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society. This is what C. Wright Mills, one of our keenest social observers, meant when he wrote in 1956, “We need to characterize American society of the mid-twentieth century in more psychological terms, for now the problems that concern us most border on the psychiatric.”4
When she came off the job, what relation had the flight attendant to the “artificial elation” she had induced on the job? In what sense was it her own elation on the job? The company lays claim not simply to her physical motions — how she handles food trays—but to her emotional actions and the way they show in the ease of a smile. The workers I talked to often spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them. They were seen as an extension of the make-up, the uniform, the recorded music, the soothing pastel colors of the airplane decor, and the daytime drinks, which taken together orchestrate the mood of the passengers. The final commodity is not a certain number of smiles to be counted like rolls of wallpaper. For the flight attendant, the smiles are a part of her work, a part that requires her to coordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless. To show that the enjoyment takes effort is to do the job poorly. Similarly, part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labor would show in an unseemly way, and the product —passenger contentment—would be damaged.* Because it is easier to disguise fatigue and irritation if they can be banished altogether, at least for brief periods, this feat calls for emotional labor.
The reason for comparing these dissimilar jobs is that the modern assembly-line worker has for some time been an outmoded symbol of modern industrial labor; fewer than 6 percent of workers now work on assembly lines. Another kind of labor has now come into symbolic prominence—the voice-to-voice or face-to-face delivery of service—and the flight attendant is an appropriate model for it. There have always been public-service jobs, of course; what is new is that they are now socially engineered and thoroughly organized from the top. Though the flight attendant’s job is no worse and in many ways better than other service jobs, it makes the worker more vulnerable to the social engineering of her emotional labor and reduces her control over that labor. Her
* Like a commodity, service that calls for emotional labor is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Recently the demand for this labor has increased and the supply of it drastically decreased. The airline industry speed-up since the 1970s has been followed by a worker slowdown. The slowdown reveals how much emotional labor the job required all along. It suggests what costs even happy workers under normal conditions pay for this labor without a name. The speed-up has sharpened the ambivalence many workers feel about how much of oneself to give over to the role and how much of oneself to protect from it.
problems, therefore, may be a sign of what is to come in other such jobs.
Emotional labor is potentially good. No customer wants to deal with a surly waitress, a crabby bank clerk, or a flight attendant who avoids eye contact in order to avoid getting a request. Lapses in courtesy by those paid to be courteous are very real and fairly common. What they show us is how fragile public civility really is. We are brought back to the question of what the social carpet actually consists of and what it requires of those who are supposed to keep it beautiful. The laggards and sluff-offs of emotional labor return us to the basic questions. What is emotional labor? What do we do when we manage emotion? What, in fact, is emotion? What are the costs and benefits of managing emotion, in private life and at work?