Service with a Smile: The True Cost of ‘Faking It’

Ever find yourself hung over at a diner at 7am, desperate to get as many hashbrowns and cups of burnt coffee into your body as fast as possible? When the waiter comes over and happily tries striking up a conversation have you ever wanted to suplex him through the nearest table like you were a WWE tag team champion? Well, have some sympathy for that  overjoyed waiter; he’s just doing his job.

This “service with a smile” mentality has been an increasingly prominent part of workplace behavior, where simply being polite isn’t enough anymore. This “emotional labor”, the fancy academic word for this obnoxious inflated happiness, adds a second dimension to work in which employees now must regulate their emotions on top of performing their duties.

The term “emotional labor” first famously appeared in Arlie Russel Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, in which Hochschild sought to theorize the effects of emotional labor on employees.  Though Hochschild acknowledged that humans regulate their emotions in their private interactions, such as acting happy around friends even if we’re having an off day, she wanted to understand how emotional regulations conducted as a part of one’s job were different than private regulations. Using two groups, flight attendants who were supposed to be “nicer than natural” and debt collectors who were supposed to be “nastier than natural”, Hochschild illustrated that emotionally performative workers began to feel estranged from their expressions (e.g. “smiling” or “grimacing”) as well as their emotions. These findings were dire, because as Hochschild points out, one-third of american men and one-half of american women are engaged in jobs that require emotional labor.

Current sociological and psychological research corroborates Hochschild’s findings. One such study suggests that sales and marketing employees who performed emotional labor felt less capable of addressing issues at home (emotional labor accounted for 28% of the variation in work-to-family interference). The same study found that respondents found that emotional labor were less satisfied with their jobs; about 15% of variation in work satisfaction scores was attributed to emotional labor. Another, more indirect, cost of emotional labor, is that people who exert more false emotions in the workplace finds themselves more exhausted, which has been shown to increased business turnover rates (1)(2).

Emotional labor doesn’t just result in psychological strain, however; some studies have suggested that emotional labor can have psychosomatic symptoms as well. In Driving it Home: How Workplace Emotional Labor Harms Employee Home Life, the authors surveyed 78 bus drivers from the american midwest, and similar to the pieces mentioned above tested for emotional exhaustion and work-to-family interference, but added an extra variable; insomnia. Similarly, the authors found that bus drivers who feigned a smile were more likely to be emotionally exhausted and had trouble addressing issues at home, but in addition had greater bouts of insomnia than those who were not faking smiles. The authors describe these issues of insomnia as a side effect of “state anxiety”, a state of nervousness or discomfort instigated by the autonomic nervous  system.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like emotional labor is going anywhere anytime soon; for every person who couldn’t care less about how happy their server is, there’s an angry old man on Red Lobster’s Facebook page complaining about their rude waiter. As a way to quell the negative psychological backlash of emotional work, Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey says that emotional labor should be abolished. Instead, she argues, greater onus should be placed on organizations, managers, and even customers to foster positive workplace environments and an authentically happy employees. What a concept, right?


Austin Round


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