FEELING AS CLUE
Feeling as it spontaneously emerges acts for better or worse as a clue. It filters out evidence about the self-relevance of what we see, recall, or fantasize. The exact point at which we feel injured or insulted, complimented or enhanced, varies. One flight attendant described her “anger” boundaries as follows:
Now if a man calls out to me, “Oh, waitress,” I don’t like it. I’m not a waitress. I’m a flight attendant. But I know that sometimes they just don’t know what to call you, and so I don’t mind. But if they call me “honey” or “sweetheart” or “little lady” in a certain tone of voice, I feel demeaned, like they don’t know that in an emergency I could save their little chauvinistic lives. But when I get called “bitch” and “slut,” I get angry. And when a drunk puts his hands right between my legs—I mean, good God!
The company, as she saw it, preferred a different anger line for her:
Now the company wants to say, look, that’s too bad, that’s not nice, but it’s all in the line of public-contact work. I had a woman throw hot coffee at me, and do you think the company would back me up? Would they write a letter? Bring a suit? Ha! Any chance of negative publicity and they say, No. They say don’t get angry at that; it’s a tough job, and part of the job is to take this abuse in stride. Well, I’m sorry. It’s abuse, and I don’t have to take it.
This flight attendant saw that the difference in interest between management (getting more happy passengers) and labor (getting civil rights and pleasant working conditions) leads each to give different answers to the question of how much anger is warranted by how much “insult.” Insofar as anger can be a prelude to action, the company’s position on anger is a practical matter. Perhaps for this reason, this clash of interest was made exquisitely obscure in the Recurrent Training class on self-awareness. Infused into a lecture giving tips on how to reduce stress and make working more pleasant was a company-oriented view of what is worth getting angry about—which is not much. The broad array of techniques for averting anger was offered as a protective cloak, but just who was being most protected from anger— the worker or the company — remained vague.
Relevant to both trainer and student is the proposition that emotion, like seeing and hearing, is a way of knowing about the world. It is a way of testing reality. As Freud pointed out in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), anxiety has a signal function. It signals danger from inside, as when we fear an overload of rage, or from outside, as when an insult threatens to humiliate us beyond easy endurance.* Actually, every emotion has a signal function. Not every
* One study on rape prevention found that victims differed from nonvictims in risk situations in their “trust of feeling.” That is, victims tended to disregard their feeling of fear whereas nonvictims in risk situations tended to heed the feeling and turn back (Queens Bench Foundation, 1976).
emotion signals danger. But every emotion does signal the “me” I put into seeing “you.” It signals the often unconscious perspective we apply when we go about seeing. Feeling signals that inner perspective. Thus, to suggest helpful techniques for changing feeling—in the service of avoiding stress on the worker and making life pleasanter for the passenger—is to intervene in the signal function of feeling.
This simple point is obscured whenever we apply the belief that emotion is dangerous in the first place because it distorts perception and leads people to act irrationally — which means that all ways of reducing emotion are automatically good. Of course, a person gripped by fear may make mistakes, may find reflection difficult, and may not (as we say) be able to think. But a person totally without emotion has no warning system, no guidelines to the self-relevance of a sight, a memory, or a fantasy. Like one who cannot feel and touches fire, an emotionless person suffers a sense of arbitrariness, which from the point of view of his or her selfinterest is irrational. In fact, emotion is a potential avenue to “the reasonable view.” Furthermore, it can tell us about a way of seeing. f
Emotion locates the position of the viewer. It uncovers an often unconscious perspective, a comparison. “You look tall” may mean “From where I lie on the floor, you look tall.” “I feel awe” may mean “compared with what I do or think I could do, he is awesome.” Awe, love, anger, and envy tell of a self vis-a-vis a situation. When we reflect on feeling we reflect on this sense of “from where I am.”1
The word objective, according to the Random House Dictionary, means “free from personal feelings.” Yet ironically, we need feeling in order to reflect on the external or “objective” world. Taking feelings into account as clues and then correcting for them may be our best shot at objectivity. Like hearing or seeing, feeling provides a useful set of clues in figuring out what is real. A show of feeling by someone else is interesting to us precisely because it may reflect a buried perspective and may offer a clue as to how that person may act.
In public life, expressions of feeling often make news. For example, a TV sports newscaster noted: “Tennis has passed the stage of trying to survive as a commercial sport. We’re beyond that now. The women’s tennis teams, too. The women are really serious players. They get really mad if they hit a net ball. They get even madder than the guys, I’d say.”2 He had seen a woman tennis player miss a shot (it was a net ball), redden in the face, stamp her foot, and spank the net with her racket. From this he inferred that the woman “really wants to win.” Wanting to win, she is a “serious” player— a pro. Being a pro, she can be expected to see the tennis match as something on which her professional reputation and financial future depend. Further, from the way she broke an ordinary field of calm with a brief display of anger, the commentator inferred that she really meant it —she was “serious.” He also inferred what she must have wanted and expected just before the net ball and what the newly grasped reality—a miss —must have felt like. He tried to pick out what part of her went into seeing the ball. A miss, if you really want to win, is maddening.
From the commentator’s words and tone, TV viewers could infer his point of view. He assessed the woman’s anger in relation to a prior expectation about how pros in general see, feel, and act and about how women in general act. Women tennis pros, he implied, do not laugh apologetically at a miss, as a nonprofessional woman player might. They feel, he said, in a way that is appropriate to the role of a professional player. In fact, as newcomers they overconform. “They get even madder than the guys.” Thus the viewers can ferret out the sportscaster’s mental set and the role of women in it.
In the same way that we infer other people’s viewpoints from how they display feeling, we decide what we ourselves are really like by reflecting on how we feel about ordinary events. Consider, for example, this statement by a young man of nineteen:
I had agreed to give a party with a young woman who was an old friend. As the time approached, it became apparent to me that, while I liked her, I didn’t want the [social] identification with her that such an action [the jointly sponsored party] would bring. … I tried explaining this to her without success, and at first I resolved to do the socially acceptable thing—go through with it. But the day before the party, I knew I simply couldn’t do it, so I canceled out. My friend didn’t understand and was placed in a very embarrassing position…. I can’t feel ashamed no matter how hard I try. All I felt then was relief, and this is still my dominant response…. I acted selfishly, but fully consciously. I imagine that my friendship could not have meant that much.
The young man reached his conclusion by reasoning back from his absence of guilt or shame, from the feeling of relief he experienced. (He might also have concluded: “I’ve shown myself to be the sort of fellow who can feel square with himself in cases of unmet obligation. I can withstand the guilt. It’s enough for me that I tried to feel shame.”)
For the sportscaster and the young man, feeling was taken as a signal. To observer and actor alike it was a clue to an underlying truth, a truth that had to be dug out or inferred, a truth about the self vis-a-vis a situation. The sportscaster took the anger of the woman tennis player as a clue to how seriously she took the game of tennis. The young man who backed out on his friend took his sense of relief and absence of guilty feelings as a clue to the absence of seriousness in his “old friendship.”
Feeling can be used to give a clue to the operating truth, but in private life as well as on the job, two complications can arise. The first one lies between the clue of feeling and the interpretation of it. We are capable of disguising what we feel, of pretending to feel what we do not—of doing surface acting. The box of clues is hidden, but it is not changed. The second complication emerges in a more fundamental relation between stimulus and response, between a net ball and feeling frustration, between letting someone down and feeling guilty, between being called names by an “irate” and getting angry back. Here the clues can be dissolved by deep acting, which from one point of view involves deceiving oneself as much as deceiving others. In surface acting we deceive others about what we really feel, but we do not deceive ourselves. Diplomats and actors do this best, and very small children do it worst (it is part of their charm).
In deep acting we make feigning easy by making it unnecessary. At Delta, the techniques of deep acting are joined to the principles of social engineering. Can a flight attendant suppress her anger at a passenger who insults her? Delta Airlines can teach her how — if she is qualified for the job by a demonstrably friendly disposition to start with. She may have lost for awhile the sense of what she would have felt had she not been trying so hard to feel something else. By taking over the levers of feeling production, by pretending deeply, she alters herself.
Deep acting has always had the edge over simple pretending in its power to convince, as any good Recurrent Training instructor knows. In jobs that require dealing with the public, employers are wise to want workers to be sincere, to go well beyond the smile that’s “just painted on.” Gregg Snazelle, who directed all the commercials for Toyota’s fall 1980 campaign, teaches his advertising students in the first class “to always be honest.”3 Behind the most effective display is the feeling that fits it, and that feeling can be managed.
As workers, the more seriously social engineering affects our behavior and our feelings, the more intensely we must address a new ambiguity about who is directing them (is this me or the company talking?). As customers, the greater our awareness of social engineering, the more effort we put into distinguishing between gestures of real personal feeling and gestures of company policy. We have a practical knowledge of the commercial takeover of the signal function of feeling. In a routine way, we make up for it; at either end, as worker or customer, we try to correct for the social engineering of feeling We mentally subtract feeling with commercial purpose to it from the total pattern of display that we sense to be sincerely felt. In interpreting a smile, we try to take out what social engineering put in, pocketing only what seems meant just for us. We say, “It’s her job to be friendly,” or “They have to believe in their product like that in order to sell it.”
In the end, it seems, we make up an idea of our “real self,” an inner jewel that remains our unique possession no matter whose billboard is on our back or whose smile is on our face. We push this “real self” further inside, making it more inaccessible. Subtracting credibility from the parts of our emotional machinery that are in commercial hands, we turn to what is left to find out who we “really are.” And around the surface of our human character, where once we were naked, we don a cloak to protect us against the commercial elements.