RESPONSES TO THE CONTRADICTION
The slowdown is a venerable tactic in the wars between industrial labor and management. Those whose work is to offer “personalized service” may also stage a slowdown, but in a necessarily different way. Since their job is to act upon a commercial stage, under managerial directors, their protest may take the form of rebelling against the costumes, the script, and the general choreography. This sort of protest occurred in many airlines throughout the 1970s as flight attendants set up independent unions to name and give voice to their accumulated resentment and discontent.*
For a decade now, flight attendants have quietly lodged a counterclaim to control over their own bodily appearance. Some crews, for example, staged “shoe-ins.” (“Five of us at American just walked on the job in Famolares and the supervisor didn’t say anything. After that we kept wearing them.”) Others, individually or in groups, came to work wearing an extra piece ofjewelry, a beard a trifle shaggier, a new permanent, or lighter make-up. Sometimes the struggle went
* These unions have fought for many things: higher wages, more soft-time trips, better health and safety regulations, and larger crews. What is directly relevant here is that they have challenged company regulations affecting whole territories of the body and its adornment, regulations on facial make-up, hairstyles, undergarments, jewelry, and shoe styles.
through the official machinery —a company “write up” of the offending worker, the filing of a grievance, and a negotiation between the company and the union. Sometimes, as in the case of body-weight regulations, the issue was taken to court. At other times a series of quietly received worker victories was followed by a company crackdown.
Workers have also —in varying degrees—reclaimed control of their own smiles, and their facial expressions in general. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “to smile” is “to have or take on a facial expression showing pleasure, amusement, affection, friendliness, irony, derision, etc., and characterized by an upward curving of the corners of the mouth and a sparkling of the eyes.” But in the flight attendant’s work, smiling is separated from its usual function, which is to express a personal feeling, and attached to another one—expressing a company feeling. The company exhorts them to smile more, and “more sincerely,” at an increasing number of passengers. The workers respond to the speed-up with a slowdown: they smile less broadly, with a quick release and no sparkle in the eyes, thus dimming the company’s message to the people. It is a war of smiles.
During a slowdown, it becomes possible to mention the personal cost of smiling too much. Workers worry about their “smile-lines.” These lines are seen not as the accumulated evidence of personal character but as an occupational hazard, an undesirable sign of age incurred in the line of duty on a job that devalues age.
The smile war has its veterans and its lore. I was told repeatedly, and with great relish, the story of one smile-fighter’s victory, which goes like this. A young businessman said to a flight attendant, “Why aren’t you smiling?” She put her tray back on the food cart, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’ll tell you what. You smile first, then I’ll smile.” The businessman smiled at her. “Good,” she replied. “Now freeze, and hold that for fifteen hours.” Then she walked away. In one stroke, the heroine not only asserted a personal right to her facial expressions but also reversed the roles in the company script by placing the mask on a member of the audience. She challenged the company’s right to imply, in its advertising, that passengers have a right to her smile. This passenger, of course, got more: an expression of her genuine feeling.
The slowdown has met resistance from all quarters and not least from passengers who “misunderstand.” Because nonstop smiling had become customary before the speedup occurred, the absence of a smile is now cause for concern.* Some passengers simply feel cheated and consider unsmiling workers facial “loafers.” Other passengers interpret the absence of a smile to indicate anger. As one worker put it: “When I don’t smile, passengers assume I’m angry. But I’m not angry when I don’t smile. I’m just not smiling.” Such workers face the extra task, if they care to take it up, of convincing passengers that they are not angry. This may mean working extra hard at doing thoughtful deeds, as if to say, “I’m as nice as they come, but you won’t get what you expect from my face. Look for it in other ways.”
The friction between company speed-up and worker slowdown extends beyond display to emotional labor. Many flight attendants recalled a personal breaking point. Here are three examples:
I guess it was on a flight when a lady spat at me that I decided I’d had enough. I tried. God knows, I tried my damnedest. I went along with the program, I was being genuinely nice to people. But it didn’t work. I reject what the company wants from me emotionally. The company wants me to bring the emotional part of me to work. I won’t.
The time I snapped was on a New York to Miami flight. On those flights, passengers want everything yesterday. There’s a constant demand for free decks of cards. One woman fought
* Even in normal times, less frequent smilers had to work at reassuring others that they were not cold or unkind just because they didn’t smile more often.
for a free deck and groused when I told her we were all out. Finally I happened to see a deck under a seat, so I picked it up and brought it to her. She opened her purse and there were fifteen decks inside.
I thought I’d heard them all. I had a lady tell me her doctor gave her a prescription for playing cards. I had a man ask me to tell the pilot to use the cockpit radio to reserve his Hertz car. I had a lady ask me if we gave enemas on board. But the time I finally cracked was when a lady just took her tea and threw it right on my arm. That was it.
Workers who refuse to perform emotional labor are said to “go into robot.” They withhold deep acting and retreat to surface acting. They pretend to be showing feeling. Some who take this stance openly protest the need to cpnduct themselves in this way. “I’m not a robot,” they say, meaning “I’ll pretend, but I won’t try to hide the fact that I’m pretending.” Under the conditions of speed-up and slowdown, covering up a lack of genuine feeling is no longer considered necessary. Half-heartedness has gone public.
The new flight attendants’ union at American, Pan American, and United has apparently decided that their best strategy is to emphasize the crucial safety and rescue skills of their members and to give a lower priority to the issue of emotion work and personal service. The companies, on the other hand, continue to emphasize service as the key to beating out their competitors. Yet what the workers are withholding and what the companies are demanding are seldom talked about in clear or precise terms. As one flight attendant put it:
I don’t think anybody ever comes right out and says to her superior, “I won’t put my emotions into this job.” The superiors know that you don’t want to, and you know what they want. And so we say a lot of things to each other that really don’t convey what we’re talking about at all. They talk about a “more positive attitude” and say you could have acted more positively. You say, “Well, I’ll do better next time,” but you think to yourself, “I’ll do it the same way next time.”
Periodically, the companies tighten their service regulations. As one veteran put it: “The more the company sees the battle, the tougher they get with their regulations. They define them more precisely. They come up with more categories and more definitions. And more emotionalizing. And then, in time, we reject them even more.”
Inevitably, a few workers will not close ranks and will insist on working even harder to serve passengers with genuinely sincere feeling. Some want to please in order to compensate for a “flaw”—such as age, fatness, or homosexuality—that they have been made to feel guilt about. Some want revenge on certain co-workers. Some are professional “angels” to whom the company eagerly points as good examples. Under slowdown conditions, they become the “rate-busters” who are resented by other workers.
One response to the slowdown, it is said, has been that companies have considered seeking cheaper labor by lowering the minimum age and educational requirements for new recruits. In another response, Pan American has shown interest in recruiting more Asian-American women. According to company officials, Pan Am wants them “for their language skills.” According to union members, it wants them for their reputed submissiveness, their willingness to perform emotional labor: “They would love nothing better than to get rid of usiand fill the plane with loving, submissive Japanese women. But for one thing, regulations prevent them from going to Japan, so they go for Japanese-American women. And there the joke’s on Pan Am. Those women are so used to being browbeaten that they are a lot tougher than we are.”
What is distinctive in the airline industry slowdown is the manner of protest and its locus. If a stage company were to protest against the director, the costume designer, and the author of a play, the protest would almost certainly take the form of a strike—a total refusal to act. In the airline industry the play goes on, but the costumes are gradually altered, the script is shortened little by little, and the style of acting itself is changed—at the edge of the lips, in the cheek muscles, and in the mental activities that regulate what a smile means.
The general effect of the speed-up on workers is stress. As one base manager at Delta frankly explained: “The job is getting harder, there’s no question about it. We see more sick forms. We see more cases of situational depression. We see more alcoholism and drugs, more trouble sleeping and relaxing.” The San Francisco base manager for United Airlines commented:
I’d say it’s since 1978, when we got the Greyhound passengers, that we’ve had more problems with drug and alcohol abuse, more absenteeism, more complaints generally.
It’s mainly our junior flight attendants and those on reserve—who never know when they will be called up—who have the most problems. The senior flight attendants can arrange to work with a friend in first class and avoid the Friendship Express altogether.
There are many specific sources of stress—notably, long shifts, disturbance in bodily rhythms, exposure to ozone, and continual social contact with a fairly high element of predictability. But there is also a general source of stress, a thread woven through the whole work experience: the task of managing an estrangement between self and feeling and between self and display.