Death to the enforced Happy Face

Monday, March 25, 2013
The British Pret A Manger fast food chain has recently been exposed for their demands on employees.

The Managed Heart, Commercialization of Human Feeling
Arlie Russell Hochschild
University of California Press, 2012
339pp, $39.95

Forcing front line staff to engage at a “personal level” with customers has been an increasingly obnoxious part of low paid workers’ employment.

To obscure the all-pervasive low quality of the “food” and “services” that capitalism offers, what is sold now is the “experience” of social interaction. Key to the Happy Meal is the “happy sale”.

The capitalists know that we are all used to alienation so they provide — at a price — a substitute relationship; the semblance of non-alienation.

They force workers to not just stand there bleary-eyed at the cash register, bored witless by the monotony of it all. They must make eye contact, smile at the customer, and act like they care about them and not just their money.

Then, after the money has made its transition from wallet to till, they must charmingly hasten the customer on their way.

To play the role, the workers must be induced into the correct mindset, no matter what the emotional cost to themselves.

Whole industries have been erected to produce workers with the mentality necessary to continually perform the required role. “FISH! Philosophy” is the latest example; just Google it — and keep a vomit bowl handy.

Originating at a successful fresh fish stall in the US where the staff were keyed up to be outlandishly funny and engaging with the customers and each other, FISH! Philosophy has been commercialised as a training system for employers to “create the work culture you’ve been looking for”.

Workers who are pushed through the FISH! Philosophy wringer learn to “Be There” for the customers, “Play” with each other in an entertaining manner, “Make Their Day”, which is to “delight people in a meaningful, memorable way” and, most importantly to “Choose Your Attitude”.

The British Pret A Manger fast food chain has recently been exposed for their demands on employees to exhibit “Pret Behaviours”, which derive from FISH! Philosophy.

Pret A Manger workers must “create a sense of fun”, be “genuinely friendly” not be “moody or bad-tempered” or appear like they are “just here for the money”.

That is: Pret A Manger doesn’t just want to buy an employee's labour power, it wants its employees’ souls.

In the 1980s, when he wrote the newly republished Managed Heart, a landmark study of this art of manipulation, Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labour” to describe this activity. It means forcing workers to adopt techniques of emotional self-management in order to serve the company’s commercial purpose.

He studied the methods that Delta Airlines used to make its cabin staff the friendliest in the skies. This was meant to be more than acting. All staff were put through gruelling training where they were taught all sorts of internal mind manipulation techniques so that they would smile “from the inside out”.

Then Delta cut staff numbers so drastically that, as Hochschild puts it, “it became virtually impossible to deliver emotional labour”.

“As workers,” Hochschild says, “the more seriously social engineering affects our behaviour and our feelings, the more intensely we must address a new ambiguity about who is directing them (is this me or the company talking?).”

Of course, this impinges on us as consumers. We put effort “into distinguishing between gestures of real personal feeling and gestures of company policy”.

In the end, navigating through this maze of manipulation, workers struggle with the idea of our “real self”, which is “our unique possession no matter whose billboard is on our back or whose smile is on our face”.

Around the surface of our human character, says Hochschild, for both the workers and the customers in these interactions “we don a cloak to protect us against the commercial elements”.

Hochschild does not explore it, but this situation raises parallels with Stalinist societies. Workers were required to pretend that they agreed with the bureaucrats, while the secret police checked to see that they went through the required motions.

Last September, Pret A Manger fired Andrej Stopa, who was trying to unionise the chain. After all, Pret A Manger staff are not allowed to be unhappy and the chain does not want a worker who “overcomplicates ideas”.

Pret A Manger employees have to keep an eye on each other, ensuring that they continually high-five eachother and maintain the flow of chatty banter.

Secret police, in the form of mystery shoppers, visit every branch of Pret A Manger every week. If they like what they see, the staff get a bonus that week.

But punishments flow if the spy happens to be served by somebody who is slightly less than delightful. For living in this fish bowl, workers are paid a pittance and are bullied mercilessly about their shifts.

As capitalism intrudes more into personal psychic space it will inevitably produce a rage against the machine. Tired of low pay, speed-ups and social austerity, workers left with no psychological place to escape the “smile from the inside” will replace it with passionate anger.


From GLW issue 959