The cost of a smile

In an online exclusive, Megan Alice Jack, a psychology student and part-time customer-service assistant, considers emotional labour in such work.

I had just witnessed the customer become petulantly frustrated with a self-service machine. Yet next he turned to me and advised; ‘cheer up, it can’t be that bad!’ I had spent much of the previous night scouring the research literature for insight into this kind of comment, and I would have loved to actively express my dissent. But mindful of the emerging queue and flashing ‘assistance needed’ signs, I offered a nod as if in agreement. 

Most who work in the service industry, particularly in customer-facing roles, will have stories of customers asking for a smile when you thought you were already were, or when you might simply not be happy that day. Do these customers have unreasonably high expectations, or is this just part of the job? Are we in the business of selling our emotions?

Buying a smile

The term ‘emotional labour’ was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 – perhaps not coincidentally around the explosion of capitalist culture. It was defined as ‘the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display’. Individuals are expected to put aside their own feelings and regulate their emotions to display a positive public face. Back then, Hochschild estimated that one-third of Americans were employed in jobs demanding emotional labour – the figure today is likely to be higher.  

Hochschild looked at the pressures placed on air hostesses to smile. Smiling not only reflected friendliness, but also confidence in the safety of the flight, assurance of timely arrival and overall competence of the airline. Similarly, O’Connell (2006) suggests that customers associate the emotions expressed during the service encounter with that of the organisation. Staff are asked to be the living embodiment of ‘service with a smile’. Hochschild argued that people do this by using two techniques; surface acting and deep acting. Smiling is a tool of surface acting whereby individuals pretend to have an emotion and use their audience, in this case the customer, as a means of determining whether they are portraying the correct one. Deep acting goes a step further and forces the individual to convince themselves they feel the emotion they are creating – a way of doing this is to visualise something that would make them smile and genuinely happy.

‘Resting Bitch Face’

The majority of the literature on emotional labour in the service industry stems from Hochschild’s concept, but empirical studies are steadily growing in volume. One interesting angle has been around gender-stereotyped beliefs in the expression of emotions, with consensus among researchers over the 'expectation of happy women and angry men' (Brody et al., 1993; Hess et al., 2000; Plant et al., 2000; LaFrance et al., 2015). So deeply-ingrained are these biases that individuals who deviate too far from what is deemed socially appropriate actually evoke disapproval from others (Deutsch et al., 1987; Stoppard & Gruchy, 1993). In the majority of cases, it is women who are on the receiving end.

Traditional social norms favour women in nurturing roles because of the need for superior interpersonal skills and nonverbal communication, both thought to be more female traits; men are favoured in more goal-directed roles, such as leadership (Brody and Hall, 2000). In line with this, findings by both Henley (1997, 1995) and LaFrance and Hecht (1999, 2000) suggest women smile more (and are expected to do so) as a form of appeasement because traditionally their social roles are lower in power/status. Others (e.g. Hess et al., 2005) emphasise the degree to which someone is dominant or affiliative. Irrespective of gender, expressions such as frowning are more readily accepted from someone with a dominant appearance; conversely greater affiliation leads to the expectation of smiling because it is associated with less status and submissiveness. A final explanation borrows from Kelley’s attribution theory model, i.e. that people take into account the consistency and consensus of behaviour when judging it. Plant and colleagues (2000) proposed that a women’s anger is more likely to be attributed to her internal characteristics (she is an angry person) rather than being a reaction to a frustrating situation.

To further highlight the gender-specificity of the issue, a popular phenomenon known as ‘resting bitch face’ (RBF) is emerging. According to rising social media attention and hordes of memes regarding RBF, there are many people out there who aren’t failing to smile – this is just what we look like! RBF was first described as a joke on a YouTube video, which depicts it as a disorder. Yet recent efforts from behavioural neuroscientists have attempted to investigate the potential science behind it. Using face reader technology, Rodgers and Macbeth (2016) propose ‘resting bitch’ face is linked to the perception of emotion, most notably contempt. According to their research, people view unsmiling faces as showing contempt, which creates a feeling of unease and a sense of unfriendliness or ‘bitchiness.’ Others (e.g. Freeman, 2013) question RBF’s validity, suggesting it is little more than an expression on someone’s face when they are not smiling, that has been created and manipulated by the media to make people (predominantly women) feel bad about their appearance.

The price of positivity

Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) effectively call emotional labour a double-edged sword – servers either provide the best customer service at the cost of regulating their emotions, or show their true feelings and risk impairing service expectations. It’s no surprise that the strain of feigning feelings and alienating one’s true sense of self can begin to tell.

Of the main emotional labour strategies, surface acting is predominantly negatively associated with well-being of service-providers (Hulsheger & Shewe, 2011). Individuals who engage in surface acting have reported higher levels of burnout causing emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a sense of lacking personal accomplishment (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). This can fuel intentions to quit, due to the level of effort needed to fake emotions that don’t seem to be recognised by customers (Walsh & Bartikowski, 2013; Brotheridge & Lee, 2002).

Researchers have suggested that it is this lack of authenticity from surface acting that causes negative service evaluations from customers and, in turn, emotional exhaustion in employees (Grandey et al., 2005). In Cõte’s (2005) interaction model, there is an effort-reward exchange between employees and customers – it is the chosen emotional labour strategy which effects customer reactions. Because surface acting produces fake emotions, Cõte recommends employing deep acting.

When employees deep act, customers buy into it and believe the employee has a genuine interest in them. In turn, this may illicit affiliative behaviours from the customer. Zimmerman et al. (2011) found supportive behaviours from customers to have a positive effect on employee well-being. For example, employees may feel greater personal accomplishment in their job.

But how do those in the service industry become skilled actors too? One trick is ‘to engage in smiles rather than just following the instruction to smile’ (Grandey et al., 2005). First described by French physician Duchenne de Boulogne, the Duchenne smile is caused by activation of the orbicularis oculi muscles, which raises the cheeks. In recent years, there has been several studies claiming it is possible to create a Duchenne smile by raising the cheeks and crinkling the eyes; ergo creating the appearance of a genuine smile (e.g. Krumhuber & Manstead, 2009; Grunnery et al., 2012).  And, Andrzejewski and Mooney (2016) propose using the Duchenne smile as an additional role behaviour for service providers.

Other creative solutions for employees struggling to feign emotions could be for organisations to offer training in deep acting. Possible training strategies could be to recall memories of positive emotions, similar to those desired throughout the service encounter (Chu et al., 2012). Similarly, employees should be trained in how to cope with stress and negative situations, but also in how harmful negative emotions are to both the individual’s well-being and the service delivery (Grandey & Brauburger, 2002).

Next steps

Although, the body of research surrounding emotional labour has grown considerably in the years since its conception, there is still a lot to learn. It is clear that the effects of emotional labour on employee’s well-being are substantial. Yet there’s a lack of solutions to something so detrimental to one’s sense of self. How do convey to employers the effect feigning emotions, all-day every day, has on their staff? If training is required, where are the blueprints? Would employers be wise to heed Hochschild’s advice, that they should ‘want workers to be sincere and go well beyond the smile that’s just painted on’?

Or is this a case where the customer isnt always right? Perhaps we should be advising employers around gender-norms, particularly within the customer-service setting. This is still seen as a predominant female role, and studies on the perception of gendered faces (e.g. Lick & Johnson, 2014) indicate that people hold a bias towards faces they are used to seeing in certain environments. For example, people may see an over-representation of women in customer-service roles and associate feminine features with this particular job. To change biases, and even to understand the popular culture idea of ‘Resting Bitch Face’, we would need to change people’s social roles and the norms associated.

I’m always a little hesitant to answer honestly when people at work ask me what I study. I tend to get the standard response of ‘oh, you must have a full case load in here, then.’ Normally, I would just sigh and surface act my way through a smile and laugh. But recently I’ve actually been able to respond with something neither of us were expecting: for all its frustration, working there has helped me uncover the depths of ‘emotional labour’ beyond that of a passing phrase mentioned in a lecture. And I’m developing some rather interesting responses to customers who are adamant I should smile…

- Megan Alice Jack is a final year undergraduate student at Heriot-Watt University studying BSc Psychology (Applied), and a part-time customer-service assistant in retail. 


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