Emotional Compliance in the Modern Workplace


There are many ways in the workplace that we are contorted and twisted to be the “best” worker imaginable. Best, from the bosses standpoint of course. And from that standpoint we shall be on time, no matter if there are snow storms or not, the customer is always right (even if they’re making rude comments) and don’t forget to smile!

I’ve talked about emotional labor before (see here and here) but it’s become increasingly abundant over the years how large of a place it occupies within retail. Retail has been my main experience in work in the past five years and it never fails to both amuse and horrify me to what length my co-workers will suppress their emotions.

It’s amusing because they’ll go from smiling and cheerful with a customer to talking about how shitty things are and how much they don’t like whatever is going on. Or maybe the interaction itself was actually super stressful and terrible but they managed to not let that on and can now speak freely about it. And it’s this incongruity and change that leads me to make a semi-pained smile or laugh about it.

But it’s a pained one because I know how much it sucks to just pretend everything is okay when it isn’t. You have to put on a mask at work and pretend that whatever is affecting you personally, isn’t. There’s nothing healthy about suppressing your emotions and especially for someone like me whose autistic, it can be really difficult at times. And then when I inevitably mess up at performing emotions like I’m “supposed’ to, I get blamed, not society and its awful standards.

I feel like one of the way around these barriers we put up to the customers are our co-workers and (maybe sometimes) our managers. They’re supposed to know how it feels (especially managers) to be in stressful situations where there is no winning and you have to pretend to be okay with that. I’m lucky enough to work at a store where most of my co-workers (and even my managers) will sympathize with me and don’t mind if I vent or let loose for a second.

But then it’s right back to the usual routine of emotional suppression.

I’ve gotten to thinking about all of this stuff because of an article by Olivia Goldhill on work and authenticity:

“The constant management of emotion can lead to emotional exhaustion and worker burnout,” says Melissa Sloan, a sociology professor at University of South Florida who has studied the effects of emotional labor.

“When you’re constantly changing the expression you give off to others, it can interfere with the signal function your emotion serves. It can be consequential to the self because workers are displaying a person to others that’s not necessarily congruent with who they think they are.”

As someone who already struggles with self-managing their emotions, it gets extra hard to manage the real ones from the ones I give to customers. If they ask me how my day is going I’ll usually say one-word sentences like “Okay” or “Fine” or even “Good” but none of them actually mean anything. It’s just small talk and as much as I dislike small talk, it’s a way to get through the transaction faster. After all, the person isn’t probably trying to get to know me.

There are a few customers who come to the store who I actually semi-enjoy and like interacting with. I’m a little less  formal with them about my emotions or displaying them. I may make a joke I might not make with a customer I don’t usually see or I might ask them about something that is going on with them. These are the so-called “bright spots”.

But customers like these aren’t the majority and even when I’m suffering from dealing with drunks, weirdos or just plain abrasive people, I can’t really say anything about it. Sometimes, when a really and obviously rude customer has left, I might make a small comment about it to the next customer in line, just to check that I’m not crazy.

Other times, I’ll ignore it entirely. That’s not a great feeling but sometimes you can get the sense of whether you have a sympathetic audience or not. And other times you can figure out that the person isn’t really upset at you or doesn’t mean to take it out on you, that’s just the way it goes. Which is a rather terrible thing to admit to yourself

Sociologists recognize that different cultures have varying degrees of managing emotions, explains Sloan.

Some have an institutional approach, and dictate what feelings and emotional expressions are appropriate.

Others are more impulsive, and believe people should express whatever emotion they feel freely. “In the US, the culture is more and more characterized by these institutional norms of emotional expression,” says Sloan. “There’s a big difference between being polite and being forced to be friendly.”

On the one hand I don’t mind being polite or even full-on friendly to customers. I just act as if they’re strangers and I’m trying to help them and have their day be a little easier. Abstractly speaking that’s something I genuinely value and something I might actually do if I felt so inclined. But once you get a job based around that, it becomes different.

You’re obligated or at least implicitly pressured to respond to customer’s behavior as frequently as possible. You have to make sure that everyone is as happy as possible and not for your sake but for the company’s sake. This is just one of the many ways that the “institutional approach” as Sloan calls it, plays out in the world of retail.

But from another perspective, the constant need to put on a good face and charm others can look dystopian. The first episode of Black Mirror’s latest season, “Nosedive,” shows a not-too-distant future where every person has an individual score, made up of ratings given by every person they encounter throughout the day. This rating doesn’t just affect their ability to get a cab ride, but what property they can rent or jobs they can have. It’s a world of constant, forced optimism and no genuine emotions.

Confession: I’ve never watched Black Mirror.

I know that might be the equivalent of a Netflix sin to some (and yes, I have Netflix and have had it for years now so my excuses are few) but I simply can’t watch a show that’s based around a depressing world. I mean, the world is too depressing as it is without me watching fake worlds where they’re (somehow) even more obviously depressing.

That’s just not my cup of tea.

Putting that aside, I’ve seen an episode of Community that was somewhat like this and enjoyed it a lot and so can still appreciate Goldhill’s point here. I’d really rather not make everything like social signals explicit in this way. Though I will admit that have some sympathies with a world like this. From my perspective, as an autistic person who struggles with social norms, at least it would (ideally) make sense even if it would be highly oppressive.


Changing cultural expectations is hardly easy, but Sloan suggests starting where emotional labor begins: the workplace. “There have been calls for workplaces to do away with expectations of emotional labor and give workers more autonomy in their expressions,” she says.

Instead of being incessantly friendly back to those in service industries, it’s far healthier to demand that everyone should all be allowed to be sad or simply neutral, regardless of profession.

I think calling for workplaces to do away with emotional labor is a great start, but it’s hardly sufficient. In a culture that constantly feeds on our emotions, spits us out and then tells us to do it all over the next day, we should do more.

The real labor is going to come from doing away with a system that, for hundreds of years, has preyed on our authenticity and told us to imitate the lousiest of politicians and fake it till we make it. Until the job is done or we are. Let’s make sure we’re undermining calls for emotional labor by being as close to ourselves as (safely) possible.

Let’s crack jokes, openly mock the jobs we work at, make wise with our co-workers and (if possible) our managers. Try to work with customers insofar as their pleasant and not be afraid to speak our minds if someone crosses a line. Or, at the very least, make sure other folks know, once that customer is gone, that their attitudes aren’t okay.

Ultimately the crisis of emotional labor in the modern day workplace is a symptom of a larger problem: Work itself.

Undermining one will likely undermine the other but we need to make sure we keep in mind what we’re ultimately fighting for. The battle for authenticity doesn’t end when we can finally curse a little more or frown as much as we’d like.

The battle for authenticity ends when work does.

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3 thoughts on “Emotional Compliance in the Modern Workplace

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