February 2, 2013

ready to smile

The next time you think all the shiny happiness around you was just an outright conspiracy, consider this from Timothy Noah, writing in The New Republic:

Pret A Manger—a London-based chain that has spread over the past decade to the East Coast and Chicago—is at the cutting edge of what the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "emotional labor." Emotional because the worker doesn't create or even necessarily sell a product or service so much as make the customer experience a positive feeling. Labor because, as Hochschild wrote in The Managed Heart (1983), the worker must "induce or suppress [his or her own] feeling" to achieve the desired effect in others. Creepy as it sounds, emotional labor is a growing presence in this economy, coming soon to a fast-food outlet near you....

Such "enforced happiness" is hardly surprising - nor even new - especially in our neoliberal Age of Self-Management, as Noah concedes. But it is increasing. Quell surprise! And at Pret A Manger, it all goes down by the rather ordinary means of training programs and company surveillance: employees know that a "mystery shopper" will enter the store once a week to observe them and, of course, reward or penalize appropriately on the quality of the service received thus effectively turning workers into onsite "enthusiasm cops."  Pret workers are thus expected to learn what the company calls "Pret Behaviours" which include not just efficiency and courtesy but "presence" and a "sense of fun."

The term "affective labor" is usually applied to various low-wage service sector jobs. But as a management technique it seems especially well-suited for "middle-class" clientele, like at Starbucks, a cheap French sounding fast food chain, or some other "lower cost-version" of what The Well-To-Do enjoy. 

Perhaps just as disturbing, as Noah slips in laconically as an aside: "The emotional economy is among other things, terrible news for men, who (unlike women) are not taught from birth how to make other people happy. Perhaps that explains why men are losing ground in the service economy." What? And "terrible news for men?" Has Noah here been taken in by the "post-feminist rallying cry" of Hanna Rosin?