Are some jobs, such as selling or working in the burgeoning hospitality industry, unique? Some jobs have a pretty intangible product, called service, and some are heavily reliant on state-of-the-art technology. What does it take to succeed in service industries?

Staff in people industries (customer service, hospitality) do have common features. They are selected to be jolly, optimistic, attentive and empathic. They have to be considerate people-people. Further, they need to have consistently high presentation standards.

But can they be authentic? Can they really express what they feel about customers and even colleagues? Surely they are required to act out a role, learn a script, play a part?

Over 20 years ago after a study of airline steward staff, researcher Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a book called “The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling”. In this book she argued for a new concept: emotional labour. She pointed out that many jobs require physical and mental labour but some, uniquely, require emotional labour.

The idea is simple: service staff are required to express emotions they do not necessarily feel. They are required to smile, to be positive, to appear relaxed, or whatever they actually experience. Hochschild called this surface acting. However in some jobs you are almost required to feel the emotions that you are expected to display. This is called ‘deep acting’. The idea is that (canny) customers can spot the false display of emotion so you have to learn the ‘inside-out smile’.

So service staff have to learn to become method actors. They must really experience emotions to be able to convincingll portray them. Marx said workers were alienated from the products of their labour. Equally Hochschild believed service workers, whose emotions are “managed and controlled” by their employers become alienated from their real feelings. The sorts of emotions are showing patience, friendliness, curiosity, while suppressing boredom, frustration and anger.

Thus service staff have not to be inauthentic but (sort of) learn authenticity. Hochschild believed this often cost too much, in that it caused psychological damage in the long term. Yet there remains controversy, not so much about the concept, but whether it is essentially damaging in the way it estranges workers from their true feelings.

One way to control and aid express is through the use of scripts. Service staff are encouraged to act; to learn their lines; to portray a character. This teaches them the appropriate emotion which may, in time, become how they feel.

There is nothing new in scripts. Sociologists in fact argue they are a good thing because they can both help workers distance themselves from their “performance” and reduce the likelihood of a “cock-up” or mishap. Young staff seem to like scripts. They help interactions with difficult and demanding customers and control volatile exchanges. As they become more confident, quite often staff personalise the (suggested) script with their own idiosyncrasies. Staff believe scripts help and protect them. Further, everybody knows that it is just surface acting.

Similarly uniforms can act like stage clothes. They can inform and protect. They help identify who is who. Was the uniform a barrier? Does it mark people as servile and powerless? Much depends on how smart it is; what is it that people are serving and who is the customer.

Serving staff have to “fake” being eternally polite, cheerful and courteous. They have to cope with people being rude, dismissive or over-familiar. Some have to deal with uninvited sexual innuendo.

All service staff have a ‘backstage’ in the galley, the kitchen, even the cloakrooms. Here they can be themselves, let off steam, react how they would naturally. Behind the scenes they can mock difficult customers. They can get their own back and enjoy the camaraderie of the oppressed. Rest breaks are times to become the real self; to take off the make up; to recover a sense of self-worth.

Training reduces the negative effects of emotional labour. What is more, some people are clearly more suited in terms of their emotional “make-up” for service jobs. Emotional labour requirements also differ from culture to culture. However, are service jobs increasingly de-skilled? Evidently not, if social and emotional skills are taken into consideration.

Acting is as much nonverbal as verbal. The office, certainly the shop, the restaurant, the hotel is a stage that requires a certain amount of acting. Many serving jobs are really very tiring indeed: it can be lethal combination of emotional, physical and cognitive labour at often a very low wage. 

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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