Work is the Mind-Killer

That’s one dead line.

There’s a concept in the Less Wrong community when it comes to issues of bias and politics and it relates to how politics numbs or even erodes our sense of sanity when trying to discuss things “reasonably” (whatever that means). And although I sympathize with what LW type folks are saying and am clearly using the phrase as inspiration for this title (though apparently it could be a Dune reference), that’s not exactly what I mean in saying that work is the mind-killer.

In a much more literal sense I do believe that work really does damage our abilities to be rational. I cannot say with certainty whether this happens in the long-run but I can speak to what I’ve experienced and seen others experience. And both of these things point to many many retail employees (managers or not) dealing with tiny cuts of impoliteness.

And it’s not just one or two cuts but many cuts over the course of a given week (and sometimes even just one day) and having to often smile and bear it. We have to shut our emotions off unless it gets to the point where someone is obviously being an asshole (e.g. yelling, cursing, threatening physical violence). But if they’re just being a little rude, standoffish, or distant in some way from us, we’re supposed to smile and pretend it’s normal.

All of this has, of course, to do with themes of emotional labor. Pretending to have our happy faces on at any given time and no matter the abuse that’s happening is a classic form of how work not only makes us less rational in how we deal with situations (Stoiticism be damned) but also inhibits our emotional faculties to boot.

On the other hand, as Aristotle argued, emotions and reason are not mutually exclusive concepts and more often than not operate in overlapping ways, as if they are on two sides of the same coin. But work erodes away any sort of usefulness we may get from this currency. Instead, it asks us to pretend and constantly reassure others that we’re “good” or “fine” or that everything is OK and there’s no need to panic.

There’s nothing to worry about. It doesn’t even matter that I feel so exhausted most of the time at work or that I’m holding back constant frowning at this point. It doesn’t matter that sometimes I feel like running out of the store just so I can get away from aggravating music, abusive customers, unaccountable management and a meager pay.

Of course you could argue that the “abuse” retail workers go by are small and insignificant. But here’s where I think the concept of “microaggressions” actually makes some sense. The ways in which people throw down their money instead of handing it, the unfriendly tones, the ways in which they address you (or don’t), all of these things matter.

Sure, they’re not as important as when people are literally threatening violence against you, or getting up in your face, or perhaps worse still, screaming at you and leaving, but then coming back in. But similar to the way society treats mental health, just because the harm is seemingly less important, doesn’t mean it’s nothing. Just because I don’t have physical bruises or any sort of trauma for all of the ways people have been rude to me, still doesn’t mean it’s OK.

But as a culture and as a society we need things like this to be very clear. If someone is yelling, trying to rob you and threatening violence (or even just any of these individual things) then some other folks might step in. Otherwise people may shake their head or just tell you to “move on” and forget about it. It’s not a big deal, so why make it one?

Then again, they’re not the ones who have to deal with the customers like you do. And in the cases that they do, not everyone needs to process emotions in the same way. Sometimes it is healthy to feel upset when you’ve been wronged, even if it was a minor infraction. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to do those things back, do worse things or linger on these emotions for too long. But acknowledging that they are there and taking deep breaths isn’t bad if nothing else.

The reactions from customers is interesting because you never know if they’ll notice it and say something (either during or after, and it’s usually after because no one wants to start a scene in public) or if they may act as if everything is okay. And part of me wonders whether that is work’s effect on them or maybe they are empathizing with the person who was being rude and telling themselves, “Well, they just must’ve had a bad day. No big deal.”

And to be fair, it’s important to empathize with people who are being cruel but empathizing too much can end up looking like excuse-making. At a certain point you need to say, “Your bad day doesn’t justify making mine any worse.”

Work infects all of these interrelations of emotions (or lack thereof) and makes it much harder for us to identify and process in healthy ways. Instead of simply feeling what we feel, taking some deep breaths and maybe talking to someone about it, we may just keep our feelings bottled inside. It’s the Dean Winchester school of thought for emotions.

Now, that’s not necessarily what everyone actually does (it’s not what I do at least some of the time) but it’s an instinct that I think our bosses try to make fester in us. That way we can keep smiling and provide “quality customer support” and other similar bullshit.  But the “quality” part is always going to be more determined by the company’s needs than your own and you should always remember that.

Even when you get supportive managers who may allow you 5 minute breaks for you when they think you’re getting heated or overwhelmed, this kind of “support” while valuable, is still in service of the idea that none of the people at the counter you are seeing have feelings.

None of us hate what we’re doing.

We don’t even think about it anymore.

Move along.


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