Emotional Labour

[Work-in-progress towards the book, in draft state without adjustments (except for removal of footnotes), so some terms are referred to which have been introduced previously and/or are returned to later.]

Through observing the work and training of the employees of a US airline - particularly flight attendants - in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Arlie Russell Hochschild arrived in her book The Managed Heart at a theory of “emotional labour”, meaning “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display”. The emotional labourer is required to “induce or surpress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Hochschild’s thesis, informed by Marx’s critique of capitalist production, is that the construction of the persona of the emotional labourer through supervision, training and the shaping of customer expectations by advertising draws upon the personal material of relationships and domestic life and transforms this into a profitable commodity, in the same way that the worker was historically alienated from his physical labour by the factory owner.

The construction of the caring, cheerful or sexy flight attendant (or conversely the harsh, uncaring debt collector) therefore constitutes a form of labour in itself in which large amounts of energy are expended, whether through the external “surface acting” of gesture, language, facial expression etc. or at the internal level of “deep acting” through the evocation of personal memories and feelings required to play the role and a suspension of disbelief, akin to the techniques of ‘method acting’. In this way the worker-performer generates an emotional state, a “worked-up warmth” towards the customer. A large part of the effort of emotional labour, in effectively producing the desired state of mind in the customer, is of course involved in creating the impression that the act is itself natural and effortless, because to show that it is contrived would invalidate the exchange.

At times Hochschild’s analysis resembles a version of Foucault’s “biopower” narrowed down to the specific experience of customer service work, a sort of bodily discourse through which institutional authority is exerted and social interactions shaped. The corporate concentration of such performative and emotional work would become central to later critiques of the post-Fordist industries of services, hospitality, media and sales. Hochschild anticipates that particular sub-category of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s “immaterial labour” concerned with the “production and manipulation of affect” - what they call “labour in the bodily mode” - as well as Virno’s concept of “virtuosity”: the worker as a “performing artist”. As such, the idea of emotional labour, with its interiorisation of production and re-making of identity, might be usefully updated and expanded in discussing the experience of the immaterialized precarious worker.

As Hochschild notes in her 2003 afterword to The Managed Heart, emotional labour has developed since her original study in two divergent ways. On the one hand, automation has reduced many interpersonal exchanges to computerised simulations (a cashpoint or website ‘thanks’ the customer, a digitally patched together human voice ‘apologises’ for a delay). On the other hand, she suggests, looking at the US labour market, jobs relating to the outsourcing of personal and family responsibilities (and the outsourcing of emotions?) have increased. To these new outlets I would add the proliferation of what I would call remote emotional labour - media work, advertising and marketing etc. - during the same period. These form a sort of virtual network of indirect emotional production.

Through automation and the parceling out to other countries of the manufacturing of physical goods, and a corresponding increase in new performative and emotional ‘products’ (the interior colonization of identity and relationships alongside the expansion of the capitalist empire into new territories), post-Fordism has arguably outlived the traditional customer-facing, explicitly gendered or sexualized model of emotional labour. Its scripts have become generalised, insinuating their way into the very fabric of everyday life. Explicit claims over the bodies of individual workers have been curtailed (one cannot imagine, for instance, an airline today getting away with submitting its attendants to the demeaning weigh-ins and “girdle checks” common in the 1970s), and the formulaic fictions of sales or politics are rarely believed any more, either by actors or audience, replaced by a postmodern pre-emptive ‘knowingness’ on both sides. But at the same time the implicit burden of emotional labour has extended far beyond the traditional spheres of sales or corporate hospitality. Emotions are foisted upon us as consumers, their virtual scripts accumulating in our consciousnesses like psychic junk, so that eventually it becomes impossible to differentiate between the real and the unreal, the personal and the corporate spheres; and through work we are asked, as responsible citizens, to recycle and reproduce these emotion-commodities, to sell them on to others.

There has been a diffusion of such labour as a sort of plug-in air-freshener to cover up the stench of precarity in every office, shop and warehouse. The atmosphere is permeated by a general emphasis upon presentation, positivity, confidence etc., and the discourse of ‘customer service’ has spread into public administration, health and education, areas which had previously cultivated a ‘sincere’, not-for-profit form of emotional labour distinct from the synthetic demands of business. In the flexible workplace the manager comes to take the position of the customer who must be satisfied, and to whom one has to continuously sell oneself. In the case of the temporary agency worker this old distinction between employer and customer is practically eliminated.

Back in 1983 Hochschild defined emotional labour as predominantly feminine and, perhaps more problematically, middle-class (while accepting the emotional duties assigned, for instance, to supermarket cashiers); but these demarcations, if they ever really existed, have since dissolved, enabling forms of emotional labour to circulate throughout society and conjure a convenient illusion of a genderless, classless workplace. The shift from manufacturing towards communicative labour and the intensification and individualization of work has meant, as discussed previously, that supposedly ‘feminine’ skills of emotion management have been imbued with a macho attitude of aggressive target-hitting and then sold back to women as a form of empowerment. Conversely, under the downward pressure of immaterial labour and the incursion of incentivizing strategies into what remains of traditional manual work, performative elements are now integral to jobs which would not be thought of in themselves as particularly emotionally laborious. Even warehouse assistants and data enterers have to present themselves as aspirational and dynamic, to be ‘effective communicators’, and to identify personally with the interests of the organisation. So regardless of whether the work itself is directly concerned with the production of affect, it contains elements of emotion management and virtuosity, both in terms of covering over true anxieties and hostilities and in summoning a contrived enthusiasm and commitment.

Illustrating this move towards communicational production, Virno suggests in A Grammar of the Multitude that the old Fordist production line with its sign “Silence! Men at work” has been replaced by a new post-Fordist cognitive factory run under the imperative “Men [and Women?] at work – talk!” But, it should be added, this talk is strictly regulated so as to maintain the correct ‘mindset’. An added performative and emotional burden is added to the workload. Indeed, under the flexible conformity of precarity, there is no end to the personal resources of the worker upon which the employer can draw in the service of the company. Consequently not talking becomes as potentially disruptive as talking used to be. Manual workers, as Virno suggests, are encouraged to contribute ideas for improving efficiency, which are then absorbed into official company policy, rather than being shared informally as ways of making the job easier. Even if such exercises are of no practical use to the management (i.e. in streamlining staff levels), they still serve a symbolic and ideological purpose by eliciting consent under a banner of ‘participation’. The same can be said for ‘huddles’ and ‘team-building’ exercises, which paradoxically promote an individualised workplace in which informal social contact is compulsorily directed towards formal corporate goals, rather than work being a mere setting for social life. So, a performance of informality might actually cover over a formality which is all the more powerful for being unacknowledged; and this (in)formality, like the orientation of the precarious worker, is internalised and becomes self-perpetuating.

Finally, and crucially for my purposes, emotional labour can be broadened beyond the traditional boundaries of work and applied to the whole para-occupation of ‘jobseeking’, which fills so many hours and has arguably taken over the structural role that work itself used to provide. The repertoire of skills required to present oneself to employers as sufficiently competitive and confident in interviews and recruitment exercises constitutes a new untrammelled form of emotional labour, driven by insecurity, which leaks over into leisure and consumption and colonizes the social life whose energy it has drained, transforming the home into an office and friendship into a self-promotional network. Up-skilling and presentational readiness give the candidate a head-start and mean s/he is instantly deployable, having started ‘putting in the hours’ prior to receiving a wage.

Even ‘at work’ there is no respite from this extracurricular labour; in fact here is it possibly at its most intense. There may not be an official requirement to ‘perform’ as part of the job description, but the worker is still expected to perform in the job in order to keep it, possibly in competition with other worker-performers, while also talking oneself into a state of enthusiasm regarding future changes and ‘opportunities’. This once again connects the new all-pervasive form of emotional labour to Virno’s concept of virtuosity, which as well as performance, also implies a skill of improvisation. The act must be kept up and continually refreshed, using whatever props or people are nearby. Every interview is an audition, every job an audition for the next one.

Neither is this type of emotional labour limited to the supposedly professional, highly communicative jobseeker depicted on job agency websites or in corporate newsletters. Under the law of aspirational inclusivity, everyone is required to participate, whether or not they are ‘natural performers’; the forced smile of compulsory enthusiasm is stretched across the welfare-to-work programmes, and reflected in the unglamorous depths of the economy. I recently underwent a recruitment process for pre-Christmas shelf-stacking work at Asda which involved, first of all, filling in a multiple choice questionnaire ostensibly “designed to let us know more about the type of work you enjoy and the kind of person you are”. This consisted of twenty pairs of either/or statements. Some examples:

     A) I am orderly                            B) I am easy going
     A) I am absorbed with ideas         B) I notice things around me
     A) I follow the rules                    B) I try to find short cuts
     A) I am calm                               B) I am lively
     A) I work best without pressure   B) I enjoy time pressure
     A) I am argumentative                B) I respect authority

Of course the answers given say nothing about your personality, other than showing that you understand the expectations of the workplace you will be entering, and that you are willing to conjure up a version of yourself which fits in with that workplace – showing respect for order, rules and authority, and displaying enjoyment linked to productivity (Oh yes, I enjoy time pressure), supplying practical energy rather than calm absorption and abstract ideas. Many other retailers have similar recruitment Q&As, whose pseudo-psychological classification is merely a cover for testing one’s capacity for conformity. The statement on the form that “there are no right or wrong answers” shows that the illusion of choice is crucial to the ‘realism’ of the act. By circling the correct statements and signing the form, the candidate ‘takes ownership’ - in the current therapy-speak - of this ultra-complaint persona, gives it his name, and consents to its future on-demand production.

The Q&A was followed by a ‘group screening’ session in the ‘training room’ of an Asda store. There twelve of us were shown a corporate documercial in which various beaming employee-performers listed the company’s supposed “values” and “beliefs” (unsurprisingly portraying these as saving its customers money and looking after its employees, rather than making money for itself out of those customers and employees), before being divided into groups, given a large sheet of paper and coloured pens, and told to design a poster, based on the content of the video, which would “sell” Asda to its potential employees. Each group then had to stand up and present its poster to the other groups and the assessors.

It might seem odd to approach retail recruitment from the point of view of promoting the company to its own staff, rather than to its customers; but then, as noted earlier, this process is not so much about ‘selling’ in the old sense, but about instilling a particular way of performing-thinking-feeling; making the candidates claim this positive attitude as their own and recognise it in others, as something natural and almost spiritual, rather than artificially imposed.

Under cover of a teamwork exercise, this was effectively a task of emotional labour; to induce and surpress certain feelings in such a way as to satisfactorily identify Asda/WalMart as the caring, happy “family” of the corporate video, presumably with the managers cast as parents and ourselves as innocent children, in a felt-tipped, primary coloured world where the reality of consumer capitalism was unthinkable, or at least unspeakable. As with the questionnaire, this exercise (which, behind the fa├žade of ‘selection’, was surely self-eliminating) demanded an act of emotional virtuosity; to use various given materials to improvise the sort of generic character which was expected of us – positive, unquestioning, enthusiastic, ‘extra mile’-going – and to offer this version of ourselves willingly, to plant in our minds and those of our colleagues a suitable emotional orientation which could later be harvested for a profit.

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