Madelyn Selwyn was 17 when she started working at the front desk of a beachfront hotel in Narragansett, R.I. She wasn’t old enough to legally drink, but the list of unspoken responsibilities while working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift included ensuring intoxicated guests wouldn’t get behind the wheel, smiling at guests she knew were philandering and remaining polite toward guests who would make sexually suggestive remarks.
The hotel was conveniently located next to a police station, so when the emotional strain of dealing with aggressive guests was too much, she had the option to give them a call.
Her breaking point ironically came when most of the police staff were already at the hotel for the wedding of the chief’s daughter. What started as a familiar interaction — a drunk relative of the bride attempted to book a room when his credit cards were declined — escalated when the man’s brother and sister ordered Selwyn to run the card again.
When the charges were rejected again, the man cocked his arm and threw a punch at his brother, sending drink glasses across the lobby.
Selwyn quit two weeks later.
Many jobs require the placation of unruly patrons to the hidden chagrin of workers in the name of customer service. It is expected that these employees will behave in an institutionally appropriate manner, regardless of what they are feeling or what they’re experiencing in their personal lives, a term sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined as “emotional labor” in her 1983 book “The Managed Heart.”
Hochschild studied flight attendants who frequently managed their emotions — painting on smiles, hiding fatigue or irritation — in order to perform the job to the fullest.
Society has already deemed women as emotional, so the repeated regulation of feelings can come to a head.
“That discrepancy between what you’re feeling and what you want to feel, which also brings into account the rule that’s governing you at the time, can lead you to that [fight-or-flight] moment,” said Rebecca J. Erickson, sociology professor and researcher at the University of Akron.
Erickson has studied the effects of emotional labor on workers’ wellbeings and how gender plays a role in the management of feelings. While gender does not impact an employee’s propensity to feel discouraged by performing emotional labor, but the way that worker’s reaction is perceived does vary between men and women.
“When men are doing that emotional labor, they get a bonus from doing that,” she said. “When they show caring and concern it’s seen as ‘Look at that positive thing that man is doing. He’s aware of the emotional need and he’s addressing that.’ Whereas women doing that same behavior are seen as ‘That’s just natural.’”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when men speak in anger, it’s seen as authoritative and coming from a position of power, Erickson noted.
In her memoir “Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail,” writer Caitlin Kelly shared her experiences working at North Face in an upscale mall in Westchester, N.Y., an over-two-year plight that involved stressful holiday seasons, pompous customers and emotional strain that bubbled over on a particularly busy day before a blizzard was set to hit.
The store was, like most shifts, short-staffed and Kelly had reached her breaking point: emotionally adapting to every customer — helping fathers select the perfect jacket for their daughters, maintaining composure when shoppers requested she be more cheerful — was too exhausting.
“I turned to my boss, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go,’” Kelly said. “And he said ‘why?’ and I said, ‘Because I’m turning into a b — — instead of being the person you need me to be to sell stuff.’ That’s what you want as a manager and that’s what you want as a customer. I don’t want to be useless.”
Margaret Wright worked as a bartender, server and barista in Albuquerque, N.M., for 15 years. She spent those years dealing with a customer base who had positions of power in the community and local politics. It proved difficult when some would act in a manner that was disrespectful or sexually suggestive. By late 2014, she relinquished the influence emotional labor had over her work.
“It was almost like I was freed by it,” Wright said. “I’m pretty sure my male colleagues never worried about getting labeled an asshole, but also could not relate to the emotional toll the way the women did.”
To combat the management of feelings through difficult work situations, Erickson suggests organizational support that recognizes the emotional skill in customer-facing jobs by emphasizing the importance of emotions in the workplace, and that diffusing difficult situations takes ability. When managers actively commend employees for exhibiting these skills, workers are likely to feel more job satisfaction.
“It’s making emotional labor visible to everyone,” Erickson says.