THE HUMAN COSTS OF EMOTIONAL LABOR
Massive people-processing—and the advanced engineering of emotional labor that makes it possible —is a remarkable achievement. It is also an important one, for a good part of modem life involves exchange between total strangers, who, in the absence of countermeasures and in the pursuit of shortterm self-interest, might much of the time act out suspicion and anger rather than trust and good will. The occasional lapses from the standard of civility that we take for granted remind us of the crucial steadying effect of emotional labor. But like most great achievements, the advanced engineering of emotional labor leaves new dilemmas in its wake, new human costs, and I shall focus now on these. For without a clear understanding of these psychological costs, we can hardly begin to find ways of mitigating or removing them.
These are three stances that workers seem to take toward work, each with its own sort of risk. In the first, the worker identifies too wholeheartedly with the job, and therefore risks burnout. In the second, the worker clearly distinguishes herself from the job and is less likely to suffer burnout; but she may blame herself for making this very distinction and denigrate herself as “just an actor, not sincere.” In the third, the worker distinguishes herself from her act, does not blame herself for this, and sees the job as positively requiring the capacity to act; for this worker there is some risk of estrangement from acting altogether, and some cynicism about it— “Were just illusion makers.” The first stance is potentially more harmful than the other two, but the harm in all three could be reduced, I believe, if workers could feel a greater sense of control over the conditions of their work lives.
The first kind of worker does not see her job as one of acting. She has little or no awareness of a “false self.” She is likely to offer warm, personal service, but she is also warm on behalf of the company—“when people like you, they like TWA too.” She offers personalized service, but she herself becomes identified with the – ized part of it. She is not so good at depersonalizing inappropriately personal behavior toward her. For these reasons, she is more likely to suffer stress and be susceptible to burnout. Instead of removing the idea of a “self” from the job either by will or by art, such a person often reacts passively: she stops caring and becomes remote and detached from the people she serves. Some flight attendants who describe themselves as poor at depersonalizing reported periods of emotional deadness: “I wasn’t feel
ing anything. It was like I wasn’t really there. The guy was talking. I could hear him. But all I heard was dead words.”
This sense of emotional numbness reduces stress by reducing access to the feelings through which stress introduces itself. It provides an exit from overwhelming distress that allows a person to remain physically present on the job. Burnout spares the person in the short term, but it may have a serious long-term cost. The human faculty of feeling still “belongs” to the worker who suffers burnout, but the worker may grow accustomed to a dimming or numbing of inner signals.3 And when we lose access to feeling, we lose a central means of interpreting the world around us.
As a precaution against burnout many experienced workers develop a “healthy” estrangement, a clear separation of self from role. They clearly define for themselves when they are acting and when they are not; they know when their deep or surface acting is “their own” and when it is part of the commercial show. They may sometimes feel “phony”—because at a given moment they feel that they shouldn’t be acting at all or that they are not acting well enough. But by differentiating between an acting and a nonacting side of themselves, they make themselves less vulnerable to burnout.
Now when the company institutes a speed-up—when it maintains its call for emotional labor but sets up conditions that make it impossible to deliver—the worker may become estranged from the acting itself. She may refuse to act at all, thus withdrawing her emotional labor altogether. Since the job itself calls for good acting, she will be seen as doing the job poorly. She may respond to the constantly negative consequences of this by trying not to take any consequences at all, by trying not to be there. If in the first stance the worker is too much present in the role, in the third stance, she is not present enough. In all three, the essential problem is how to adjust one’s self to the role in a way that allows some flow of self into the role but minimizes the stress the role puts on the self.
In all three cases, the problem of adjusting self to role is aggravated by the worker’s lack of control over the conditions of work. The more often “tips” about how to see, feel, and seem are issued from above and the more effectively the conditions of the “stage” are kept out of the hands of the actor, the less she can influence her entrances and exits and the nature of her acting in between. The less influence she has, the more likely it is that one of two things will occur. Either she will overextend herself into the job and burn out, or she will remove herself from the job and feel bad about it.
Worker control over the conditions of good acting boils down, in the end, to practical politics. The San Francisco base manager for United Airlines gave an example: “The company wanted to take two flight attendants off each San Francisco-Honolulu crew, but the union was adamantly opposed, and they won. Now that’s a multimillion dollar decision. But maybe it was a good thing they won. They felt they could have some control over that decision. It wasn’t just money they wanted. They wanted some say over their work lives so they could do the job like they wanted.”
But even such actions by organized workers cannot solve the whole problem. For whenever people do acting for a living, even if they have some control over the stage, they inhabit their own stage faces with caution: behind the mask, they listen to their own feelings at low volume. Cheerfulness in the line of duty becomes something different from ordinary good cheer. This applies much more to the flight attendant, who must try to be genuinely friendly to a line of strangers, than to the commissary worker, who can feel free to hate packing the three-hundredth jello cup onto a lunch tray.