emotional labor: dissociation for hire

A few weeks ago, over the holidays, I was in line at a Starbucks when the mother of one of the employees came into the store to surprise her daughter. “Hi, honey!” she called, from the back of a long line of waiting customers. “Why aren’t you smiling more?” I cringed as the young woman, who was clearly stressed, preoccupied with handling multiple tasks, managed a weak smile.

I worked for 15 years in various customer service positions, none of which paid particularly well. While the job duties varied, what never did was the expectation that I should smile, look happy, and seem to be enjoying my job, at all times. Many of these years were spent on the phone in a call center for a bank, where I had learned that smiling made my voice sound nicer, and so I would fix my jaw in a smile in order to give disgruntled callers the most-pleasant-experience-possible.

I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but this expectation was what’s called emotional labor. Emotional labor is the smiling barista, the cheerful bank teller, the calm person behind the car rental counter in the face of the angry customer.

Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1999 movie ‘Office Space’ may recall this iconic scene where Stan (Mike Judge), the “Chotchkie’s” manager, suggests that Joanna (played perfectly by a jaded and weary young Jennifer Aniston) is not giving off the proper attitude:

Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, okay?
Joanna Okay.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna Okay. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Look. Joanna.
Joanna Yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. Okay? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna Yeah. Okay. So more then, yeah?
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

Joanna Yeah, yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Okay. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild says that “(emotional labor) requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others—in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”

Emotional labor requires us to dissociate from our own embodied experience in order to perform our work. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that for some people this can be profoundly traumatic over time.

To create a sense of care, or goodwill, or attunement with others that is not authentically felt, we have to act in a way that suppresses not just our own feelings, but in many cases, the truth of who we are. For example, asking a neurodivergent person to connect in a way that is not natural to them will be incredibly difficult, or even painful. Similarly, when an introverted individual is required to engage in extended social contact, this can leave them feeling deeply drained. This type of work requires a tremendous output of psychic energy that is exhausting, and is almost never acknowledged, let alone compensated accordingly.

Emotional labor in the wellness world

My ten years in customer service (from bank teller to branch manager) taught me that if I wanted to do well on performance reviews, make more sales, and move ahead in that career, I needed to smile, push down my frustration, irritation, and tears, and act as though I absolutely loved my job. Telling that crying customer that they were being charged daily until they could pay those 5 overdraft fees? Love to. Let the angry man call me names on the phone? No problem! Maybe I can sell him something and make my unrealistic sales goals! Watch the manager gave my co-worker an unsolicited back rub in her cubicle? Great! It’s all fine! I’ll cry in the bathroom at lunch!

Obviously this was pretty awful, but at the end of the day, I knew that I could remove that persona (I often took a shower immediately when I got home– anything to wash off that feeling!) and be truly “me” again at home.

When I left that corporate world to “follow my dream” and run a yoga studio, you might have expected, as I did, that I’d be leaving emotional labor behind. After all, I was doing what I loved, right?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider some popular stereotypes: What do we expect from a yoga teacher? Peaceful, calm, spiritual, caring, equanimous? Or your favorite group fitness instructor– gregarious, cheerful, full of energy and encouragement? A physical therapist or PT assistant? Patient, caring, attentive, impervious to patient complaints.

Are these natural qualities that these folks feel and exhibit, or just our expectations? While we understand that of course, these people are human, the truth is that we expect these folks to have a certain demeanor, attitude, and approach to their job and to their lives. We might think that emotional labor is most prevalent in service industries, but it’s also a built-in part of any kind of work in the wellness or fitness industries. For self-employed people, this persona may feel like it needs to become their identity– even on weekend trips to the grocery store, we may not be able to fully relax into ourselves.

As the owner of a yoga studio, my students expected me to be ready to address their physical, spiritual and emotional needs at a moment’s notice. Behind the counter, I had to soothe hurt feelings when folks couldn’t get into a full class; tactfully let folks know that their credit card was declined; keep the studio spotless and smelling great. No matter how tired I was; no matter the fact that I was working 7 days a week and sleeping poorly; even if my dog had died two weeks ago, I had a broken arm, and was taking Percocet, I needed to be the person they expected me to be– or my business suffered.

After one incredibly long day, I found myself walking into the lobby and looking at an overflowing trash can that needed to be emptied. I was alone, and in a weird, out-of-body moment, felt that my face had formed itself into an artificial smile. I was horrified to realize that I was smiling at the trash can because I had trained myself to smile when I was frustrated or unhappy. This was a functional, adaptive behavior that helped me to deal with all of the students, clients, and teachers that needed me to be “there” for them– and it was so engrained that I was turning that smile on a basket of tissues, coconut water cans, and used incense sticks. Now that’s some serious dissociative behavior.

Making the implicit explicit

If it sounds like I hate emotional labor, that’s really not true. I think emotional labor takes a tremendous amount of effort and expertise. Paid or unpaid, it’s a necessary part of any functional society. The problem is that in almost every case, it’s unacknowledged and underpaid. The courteous reply, the smiling response, the understanding voice on the other end of the line are expectations that we take for granted. The workers who change our kids’ diapers or bathe our elderly parents are being asked to engage in acts of intimate care at minimum wage. Flight attendants, nurses, social workers– these folks are all being asked to handle volatile situations with creativity and kindness. All of this is incredibly skilled work that our culture doesn’t value enough to pay well.

In my own work, I know that I can no longer afford to engage in unpaid emotional labor. I have structured my business so that I can take weekends off, as well as four weeks per year of vacation. This means that when I am with my clients, I can attune to them with genuine care, not needing to suppress my own unmet needs. I make sure that my emotional labor is paid. It’s always been implicit in this type of work, and I do my best to make it explicit when I discuss what I do with clients and colleagues. This is how we start to change a culture.

It’s a privilege to be able to do this, of course. Many people need to work in ways that require unpaid emotional labor. If that’s you, it’s important to honor the level of skill and care you are bringing to your work, even if your employers (or customers) do not. At the very least, recognizing that suppressing your own needs or identity while you’re working is going to tax your personal resources can help you to manage them better, or to seek out support and resources. And if you’re self-employed, consider how you can factor in the cost of your own emotional labor when you set your pricing and schedule policies.

As consumers, one thing we can do is to begin to notice and recognize when we are asking for that labor in our unspoken expectations, and to minimize unnecessary demands on it. For example, do we really need a quick response, or can we let them know it’s not urgent? Can we offer to pay extra when what we’re asking for is outside the bounds of the relationship? And, can we recognize that the person behind the counter may not be able to smile right now?

After all, she certainly isn’t being paid for it.

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