Happy Meals

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Timothy Noah questions one restaurant’s approach to customer service:

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.

Noah’s reaction:

Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have “presence” and “create a sense of fun”? Why can’t he or she be doing it “just for the money”?

Because it makes for a more pleasant customer experience which itself encourages repeat visits. How hard is that to understand? Noah’s piece is riddled with the kind of lefty condescension that drives me up the wall. Take this paragraph:

The more the rich get used to fawning service, the more the rest of us—or rather, the rest of us who can afford to buy a sandwich rather than brown-bag it from home—find we rather like it, too. Eventually everybody will have to act like a goddamned concierge. I don’t want to believe this, but I fear it may be true.

Fear? Fear that consumers might get better service and that corporations actually try to encourage this? Fear that when you are in service jobs, your boss may keep tabs on how well you interact with customers and colleagues? It’s fascism, I tell you. Or some kind of false consciousness. Apparently, Noah wants service that in no way is encouraged to be cheerful. My advice? Visit France.

And this service ethic of fake cheeriness began in the US of A. It was one of those things I noticed and loved immediately arriving here, and over the last quarter century saw spread throughout my country of origin. The service culture – which is indeed a kind of performance – makes everything more pleasant to buy, blends consumerism with entertainment and enjoyment. Wanna scowl with your coffee? Vaughan Bell pushes back some more:

Those of a political bent might notice an echo of Marx’s theory of alienation which suggests that capitalism necessarily turns workers into mechanistic processes that alienate them from their own humanity.  However, the concept of ‘deep emotional labour’ is really where the approach can start becoming unhelpful as it has the capacity to denigrate genuine compassion as ‘required labour’. I doubt many nurses go into their profession intending to ‘monetize their emotions’ or feel they have been ‘alienated’ from their compassion. And as armies are loathe to admit, soldiers serve for their country but fight for their platoon mates. Is this really a form of ‘deep emotional labour’ or it is just another job where emotions are central?