Partial Readings: The Smile Economy, Nick Kristof’s Hugs, Tweeting About Tipping

The notion of “emotional labor” has mostly been the terrain of academics since sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term in the 1980s. Also known as “affective labor,” this is the work of selling smiles along with, say, coffee.

A series of recent articles have brought emotional labor into the spotlight as a fundamental component of today’s service economy, one rigorously enforced by employers and taxing on already strained service workers.

Not only do more and more employers explicitly demand that workers project their “personalities” on the job, but the scope of their requirements has broadened. Exemplifying this drive is the London-based sandwich chain Pret a Manger, recently scrutinized in the London Review of Books by Paul Myerscough. Responding to a case where a Czech student was fired from the chain, most likely for helping coordinate a new, independent Pret A Manger Staff Union (Pamsu), Myerscough writes:

Pret will have been disappointed to discover that any of its staff were unhappy enough in their work to have want of a union. Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy. They are recruited precisely for their ‘personality’, in the sense that a talent show host might use the word. Job candidates must show that they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’ (these are listed on the website too)….The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.

If working at Pret a Manger sounds distressingly similar to being in a reality TV show, at least the chain’s political imperative is subtle. Not so at Starbucks, where baristas were enlisted into an unconventional pro-austerity campaign during December’s fiscal cliff talks, as Josh Eidelson reports in the Nation:

The day after Christmas, [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz announced an unconventional effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: for a couple of days, DC-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups. “Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog. He also plugged the Fix the Debt website and, for good measure, name-checked the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary.

Schultz’s use of hourly employees was both shrewd and deceptive. Logistics aside, a Come Together message inscribed by a billionaire CEO and printed on coffee cups could never pack the same punch as one that was handwritten by workers making $8-something an hour. Schultz’s blog post was quickly followed by a mass email from Fix the Debt, bragging that “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.” CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced.

In a year when companies “told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts),” the Starbucks stunt comes across as a rather gentle act of coercion. It is nevertheless indicative of the political salience of forced enthusiasm in the workplace.

As the New Republic‘s Tim Noah and MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff joined the discussion about emotional labor, Sarah Jaffe intervened with a reminder about the deeply gendered nature of such work. The service sector’s affective demands, she writes, “are based on behavior that is expected of women beyond the workplace.”

Much of this work has been women’s work for decades, in some cases for hundreds of years….The caring professions—such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work—were considered to be women’s work as well, and correspondingly paid less than their more prestigious cousins. A domestic worker who cooks for the family might well make less than minimum wage while a famous chef commands much more; elementary school teachers start at $30,000 or $40,000 a year while college professors (if they can get a position) are much better compensated, and I don’t really need to tell you how much more doctors make than nurses, right?

Furthermore, she adds, “Women’s personalities aren’t all they’re expected to sell in the service workplace. As Grace Bello wrote at Jezebel, there are plenty of jobs that aren’t sex work but still rely on the emotional labor and physical appearance of women workers.”

On his blog, Peter Frase rounds up this discussion of what he calls “the third wave form of the work ethic” with a defense of “Soviet” waiters—service workers, that is, who treat customers with “indifference bordering on contempt.” Until wage labor is eliminated, he says, “the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable,” and little short of smashing capitalism will bring us genuinely happy waiters. Still, increasing their wages would be a good start.

For more on emotional, domestic, and gendered labor, see Mother Jones‘s timeline of domestic work and organizing in the United States and Megan Erickson’s review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self, in the current issue Dissent.

Elsewhere online:

The politics of tipping: a debate in 140-character installments.

Members of the antiwar group CODEPINK experiment with different ways of challenging John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director, including knocking on the “assassination czar”‘s door.

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, The New Inquiry meditates on love in the internet age and scrutinizes New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s interventionist hugs.

Rebecca Solnit rides the Google Bus.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.


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