INSTITUTIONAL EMOTION MANAGEMENT
The professional actress has a modest say over how the stage is assembled, the props selected, and the other characters positioned, as well as a say over her own presence in the play.
This is also true in private life. In both cases the person is the locus of the acting process.
But something more operates when institutions are involved, for within institutions various elements of acting are taken away from the individual and replaced by institutional mechanisms. The locus of acting, of emotion management, moves up to the level of the institution. Many people and objects, arranged according to institutional rule and custom, together accomplish the act. Companies, prisons, schools, churches —institutions of virtually any sort—assume some of the functions of a director and alter the relation of actor to director. Officials in institutions believe they have done things right when they have established illusions that foster the desired feelings in workers, when they have placed parameters around a worker’s emotion memories, a worker’s use of the as if. It is not that workers are allowed to see and think as they like and required only to show feeling (surface acting) in institutionally approved ways. The matter would be simpler and less alarming if it stopped there. But it doesn’t. Some institutions have become very sophisticated in the techniques of deep acting; they suggest how to imagine and thus how to feel.
As a farmer puts blinders on his workhorse to guide its vision forward, institutions manage how we feel One of the ways in which they do this is to prearrange what is available to the worker’s view. A teaching hospital, for example, designs the stage for medical students facing their first autopsy. Seeing the eye of a dead person might call to mind a loved one or oneself; to see this organ coldly violated by a knife might lead a student to faint, or flee in horror, or quit medicine then and there. But this seldom happens. In their study of medical training, Lief and Fox report:
The immaculate, brightly lit appearance of the operating room, and the serious professional behavior required, justify and facilitate a clinical and impersonal attitude toward death. Certain parts of the body are kept covered, particularly the face and genitalia, and the hands, which are so strongly connected with human, personal qualities, are never dissected. Once the vital organs have been taken out, the body is removed from the room, bringing the autopsy down to tissues, which are more easily depersonalized. The deft touch, skill, and professional attitude of the prosector makes the procedure neater and more bloodless than might otherwise be the case, and this increases intellectual interest and makes it possible to approach the whole thing scientifically rather than emotionally. Students appear to avoid talking about the autopsy, and when they do talk about it, the discussion is impersonal and stylized. Finally, whereas in laboratory dissection humor appears to be a widespread and effective emotional control device, it is absent in the autopsy room, perhaps because the death has been too recent and [humor] would appear too insensitive.14
Covering the corpse’s face and genitalia, avoiding the hands, later removing the body, moving fast, using white uniforms, and talking in uniformed talk—these are customs designed to manage the human feeling that threatens order.
Institutions arrange their front stages. They guide the way we see and what we are likely to feel spontaneously. Consider the inevitable institutional halls, especially those near the areas where people wait. Often in medical, academic, and corporate settings we find on the walls a row of photographs or oil paintings of persons in whom we should have full confidence. Consider Allen Wheelis’s description of a waiting-room picture of a psychiatrist:
With the crossed legs you claim repose, tranquility…. Everything is under control. With the straight shoulders you say dignity, status. No matter what comes up, this guy has nothing to fear, is calmly certain of his worth and of his ability. With the head turned sharply to the left you indicate that someone is claiming his attention. No doubt hundreds of people would like this guy’s attention. He was engrossed in his book, but now he’s being interrupted. And what was he reading? Playboy? Penthouse? The funny papers? Oh, no; he’s into something heavy. We can’t see the title, but we know it’s plenty important…. Usually it’s Osier’s Principles and Practice of Medicine. And the finger marking his place? Why, he’s been at it so intently, so diligently, he’s already halfway through. And the other hand, lying so lightly, so gracefully, on the book. That shows intelligence, experience, mastery. He’s not scratching his head trying to figure out what the hell the author is getting at…. Anytime you knock on this guy’s door, you’ll find him just like that, dressed to the nines, tie up tight in his buttoned-down collar, freshly pressed jacket, deeply immersed in one of these heavy tomes.15
The professional’s own office, of course, should be done up in a pleasant but impersonal decor, not too messy and colorful but not too cold and bare; it should reflect just the amount of professional warmth the doctor or lawyer or banker himself ought to show. Home is carefully distinguished from office, personal flair from professional expertise. This stage setting is intended to inspire our confidence that the service is, after all, worth paying a lot for.
Airlines seem to model “stage sets” on the living rooms seen on daytime television serials; the Muzak tunes, the TV and movie screens, and the smiling flight attendants serving drinks are all calculated to “make you feel at home.” Even fellow passengers are considered part of the stage. At Delta Airlines, for example, flight attendants in training are advised that they can prevent the boarding of certain types of passen-
gers—a passenger with “severe facial scars,” for example. The instructor elaborated: “You know, the other passengers might be reminded of an airplane crash they had read about.” The bearer of a “severe facial scar,” then, is not deemed a good prop. His or her effect on the emotion memory of other money-paying passengers might be all wrong.
Sometimes props are less important than influential directors. Institutions authorize stage directors to coach the hired cast in deep acting. Buttressed with the authority of a high office or a specialized degree, the director may make suggestions that are often interpreted at lower levels as orders.
The director’s role may be simple and direct, as in the case of a group of college students training to be clinicians in a camp for emotionally disturbed children, studied by Albert Cohen. These students, who composed the junior staff, did not know at first how they were supposed to feel or think about the wild behavior of the disturbed children. But in the director’s chair sat the senior counselors, advising them on how to see the children: “They were expected to see the children as victims of uncontrollable impulses somehow related to their harsh and depriving backgrounds, and in need of enormous doses of kindliness and indulgence in order to break down their images of the adult world as hateful and hostile.”16
They were also taught how to feel properly toward them: “The clinician must never respond in anger or with intent to punish, although he might sometimes have to restrain or even isolate children in order to prevent them from hurting themselves or one another. Above all, the staff were expected to be warm and loving and always to be governed by a ‘clinical attitude.’”17 To be warm and loving toward a child who kicks, screams, and insults you —a child whose problem is unlovability —requires emotion work. The art of it is passed down from senior to junior counselor, as in other settings it passes from judge to law clerk, professor to graduate student, boss to rising subordinate.
The professional worker will implicitly frown on certain uses of emotion memory. The senior counselor of disturbed children will not allow herself to think, “Tommy reminds me of the terrible brat I had to babysit when I was thirteen, and if he’s like that I’ll end up hating him.” Instead, she will reconceive Tommy in another way: “Tommy is really like the other kid I used to babysit when I was fourteen. He was difficult but I got to like him, so I expect I’ll get to like Tommy despite the way he pushes me away suspiciously.”
A proper way to experience the child, not simply a proper way to seem to feel, was understood by everyone as part of the job. And Cohen reports that the young caretakers did admirably: “To an extraordinary degree they fulfilled these expectations, including, I am convinced, the expectation that they feel sympathy and tenderness and love toward their charges, despite their animal-like behavior. The speed with which these college students learned to behave in this way cannot be easily explained in terms of gradual learning through a slow process of‘internalization.’”18
In more circuitous ways, too, the formal rules that prop up an institution set limits to the emotional possibilities of all concerned. Consider, for example, the rules that guard access to information. Any institution with a bit of hierarchy in it must suppress democracy to some extent and thus must find ways to suppress envy and resentment at the bottom. Often this is done by enforcing a hierarchy of secrets. The customary rule of secrecy about pay is a case in point: those at the bottom are almost never allowed to know how much money those at the top get each month, nor, to the fullest extent, what privileges they enjoy. Also kept secret are deliberations that determine when and to what level an individual is likely to rise or fall within the organization. As one University of California administrative memorandum explained: “Letters concerning the disposition of tenure review cases will be kept confidential, in order that those involved not hold grudges or otherwise harbor resentment toward those unfavorably disposed in their case.” In this situation, where the top depends upon being protected from the middle and the bottom —from “those involved” as the memo put it—leaks can cause panic.19
Finally, drugs of various sorts can be used to stimulate or depress mood, and companies are not above engineering their use. Just as the plow displaced manual labor, in some reported instances drug use seems to be displacing emotional labor. The labor that it takes to withstand stress and boredom on the job can be performed, some workers have found, by Darvon and Valium. Workers at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, for example, found that nurses in its medical department gave out Valium, Darvon, codeine, and other drugs free and without prescription. There are a number of ways, some of them company-sponsored, to “have a nice day” on the job, as part of the job.20