THE FAMILY: TRAINING GROUND. FOR THE TRANSMUTATION
What a person does at work may bear an uncanny resemblance to the “job description” of being the child of such a worker at home. Big emotion workers tend to raise little ones. Mothers and fathers teach children letters and numbers and manners and a world view, but they also teach them which zone of the self will later be addressed by rules of work. As research on this topic suggests, working-class parents prepare the child to be controlled more by rules that apply to overt behavior whereas middle-class parents prepare them to be governed more by rules that apply to feelings.4
From his study of British middle-class and working-class families, the sociolinguist Basil Bernstein draws a distinction between two types of “family control system,” the positional and the personal.
In the positional control system, clear and formal rules determine who gets to decide what and who gets to do what. The right to make rules is based on formal attributes, such as age, sex, and parenthood. A “positional family” is not nec* It is mainly in these jobs, where deep and surface acting form an important pari of the work, that hating the job can prevent one from doing the job well.
essarily authoritarian or emotionally cold; it simply bases authority on impersonally assigned status and not on personal feelings. Positional appeals, therefore, are appeals to impersonally assigned status. For example, to her son who keeps saying he wants to play with a doll, a mother might appeal to sex status: “Little boys don’t play with dolls, dolls are for your sister; here, take the drum instead.”
In the personal control system, what matters far more than formal status is the feelings of parent and child. Parents back up their appeals by such statements as “because it would mean a lot to me” or “because I’m very tired.” Appeals are also aimed at the child’s feelings. A mother using personal control in the situation above might say: “Why do you want to play with the doll? They’re so boring. Why not play with the drum?” In positional families, control works against the child’s will. In personal families, control works through that will. Thus a child who says “I don’t want to kiss grandpa—why must I kiss him always?” will be answered in different ways. Positional: “Children kiss their grandpa,” and “He’s not well—I don’t want any of your nonsense.” Personal: “I know you don’t like kissing Grandpa, but he’s unwell and he’s very fond of you.”5
In the personal family, Bernstein notes, the child appears to have a choice. If the child questions a rule invoked by the parent, the situation is further explained and the alternatives more clearly elaborated. Given the situation and the explanation, the child chooses to observe the rule. But in the positional family, the child is told to act according to a rule, and any questioning of it is answered by an appeal to immutable status: “Why? Because I’m your mother, and I say so.” The personal child is persuaded to choose the right course of action and persuaded to see and feel about it in the right way.6 The positional child is told what to do and asked to accept the legitimacy of the order.
Working-class families are generally more positional, Bernstein says, and middle-class families more personal.
Similarly, Melvin Kohn in his Class and Conformity (1977) finds middle-class parents more likely to sanction what they later infer to be a child’s feeling and intent whereas working – class parents are more likely to sanction behavior itself. A middle-class mother is far more likely to punish her son for losing his temper than for engaging in wild and disruptive physical play. His loss of temper, not his wild play, is what is intolerable.7
The middle-class child seems to be especially subject to three messages. The first is that the feelings of superiors are important. Feeling is tied to power and authority because it is the reason adults often give for the decisions they make. The child grows sensitive to feeling and learns to read it well. The second is that a child’s own feelings are important. Feelings are worth paying attention to and can be honored as reasons for doing or not doing something. The middle – class child’s own sense of power is tied more closely to feeling than to external display. f The third is that feelings are meant to be managed—monitored, sanctioned, and controlled. Thus when Timmy spills ink on the new rug, he will be punished less for damaging the rug than for doing it in anger. His transgression lies in not managing his anger.
It seems, then, that middle-class children are more likely to be asked to shape their feelings according to the rules they are made aware of. At the very least, they learn that it is important to know how to manage feeling. In a sense, the true middle-class lesson may be set forth not in Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care but in Constantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1948) —for it is through the art of deep acting that we make feelings into instruments we can use.
In reviewing this research on the family, I have frequently used the terms “middle-class child” and “working-class child,” but I do not mean to suggest that one is trained to do emotional labor and the other is not. Middle-class parents whose jobs do not involve public contact may train their children to accept positional authority, and lower-class parents whose jobs do involve public contact may train their children to accept personal authority.8 More precisely, the class messages that parents pass on to their children may be roughly as follows. Middle class: “Your feelings count because you are (or will be) considered important by others.” Lower class: “Your feelings don’t count because you aren’t (or won’t be) considered important by others.”
Cutting across the class messages may be other messages about emotional labor. The two main ones would be as follows. “Learn to manage your feelings, and learn to attune yourself to feeling rules because doing this well will get you places” (emotional-labor occupations). And “Learn to manage your behavior because that is all the company will ask of you” (nonemotional-labor occupations). Upper-class parents doing emotional labor may combine the messages “Your feelings are important” and “Learn to manage them well” whereas lower-class emotional laborers may stress only the “Manage them well.” Conversely, upper-class parents who do not specialize in emotional labor may emphasize “Your feelings matter” without stressing “Manage them well.” And lower-class parents doing physical or technical work may see no relevance in either message.
How feelings are dealt with in families may be determined not so much by social class as by the overall design of emotional labor, which is itself only loosely related to social class. Further, in our society the personal control system extends far beyond the family; it operates, for example, in schools that stress the development of autonomy and emotional control and in jobs that call for a capacity to forge useful relationships.
If jobs that call for emotional labor grow and expand with the spread of automation and the decline of unskilled labor—as some analysts believe they will —this general social track may spread much further across other social classes. If this happens, the emotional system itself—emotion work, feeling rules, and social exchange, as they come into play in a “personal control system”—will grow in importance as a way through which people are persuaded and controlled both on the job and off. If, on the other hand, automation and the decline of unskilled labor leads to a decline in emotional labor, as machines replace the personal delivery of services, then this general social track may come to be replaced by another that trains people to be controlled in more impersonal ways.
The transmutation of emotional life —the move from the private realm to the public realm, the trend toward standardization and commercialization of emotive offerings —already fans out across the whole class system. Commercial conventions of feeling are being recycled back into individual private lives; emotional life now appears under new management. Talking at dinner about encounters with an irate customer or watching the moves of host and participant on television giveaway programs opens the family home to a larger world of feeling rules. We learn what to expect outside, and we prepare.
In the United States, this public culture is not simply public; it is commercial. Thus the relation between private emotion work and public emotional labor is a link between noncommercial and commercial spheres. The home is no longer a sanctuary from abuses of the profit motive. Yet the marketplace is not without images of the home. The atmosphere of the private living room, which a young flight attendant is – asked to recall as she works in the airplane cabin, has already borrowed some of the elements of that cabin. The principles of commerce that govern exchanges in the cabin are supposed to be softened by the analogy to a private home, a home remote from commerce. But for a quarter of a century now, private relations between friends and kin have been the basis for living room “parties” at which kitchenware, cosmetics, or (more recently) “sex-aids” are sold.9 Similarly, to build a market for air travel, the airlines use the idea of a private family and the feelings one would have there. Airline training strategists borrow from the home the idea of a place where that sort of borrowing doesn’t go on. Yet in a culture like ours, it does.
Thus it is in the family that we assess our ties to the public culture and search out ways in which we may be monitored there. It is in the family—that private refuge, that haven in a heartless world — that some children first see commercial purposes at close hand and prepare for the call from central casting that will let them display their skills on a larger stage.