The Gatepost Editorial: Not all labor is physical

Journalists Renee Montagne and Alix Spiegel co-hosted a 2016 episode of NPR’s “Invisibilia,” a program about human behavior and how quirks we consider to be universal could, instead, stem from cultural differences. 

Spiegel said, “In America, smiles are like air. They’re all around us. You get them with your morning coffee. You get them with your lunch, which was really quite mystifying to Yuri Chekalin,” their Russian guest.

Chekalin said, “In Russia, yeah, we don’t smile at strangers.”

He said the “American service smile” was imported to Russia in 1990 with the advent of the first McDonald’s coming to Moscow in January of that year. 

So, that smile you get at the fast food drive-thru window, the table at the nice sit-down restaurant, or the counter at the coffee shop? 

That’s a part of your order, too.

We might expect the average service-sector employee’s cheerful camaraderie and kindness to be a normal, everyday inclusion that takes little to no effort, but in reality – it’s emotional labor.

While emotional labor encompasses many different fields, as students at a state university, many of us are familiar with having to work minimum wage part-time jobs in the service industry in particular. 

It’s the only way for most of us to be able to pay for tuition and fees, which rise every semester. We’re saddled with more student loans to offset the paltry federal and state grant monies were awarded.

Our livelihoods literally depend on whether we smile at people we barely know, whether we make innocent small talk with the frustratingly silent older regular who just wants to get his coffee and go, or whether we politely fake a laugh at the very unfunny customer who asks, “If there’s no price tag, that means it’s free, right?”

We work under supervisors who don’t really care about their underlings and really only want them to produce good results they can show off to their higher-ups at any cost. 

At retail stores where employees work for a commission, management doesn’t care about how we are feeling. All they care is that we sell an extra pair of shoes or socks.

Over time, these forced emotional fronts and the excruciatingly tiresome faux politeness we must display to the tune of 12 dollars an hour at minimum slowly wear down our mental fortitudes and affect our lives outside of work as well.

For example, it is well known that servers at restaurants make less than minimum wage and are expected to make up the rest in tips that are gained from being as criminally sweet as possible – even when customers are hurling insults and snapping their fingers. 

Most of these jobs are already physically demanding, requiring us to be on our feet for hours at a time, making sitting down and just taking a break look lazy. 

Expecting people in the service industry to be happy and cheery all the time, even after they’ve just worked agonizingly long eight-, nine-, or even 14-hour double shifts, is absolutely evil and upholds an unsustainable culture.

This emotional labor aspect of the minimum wage job can be even worse than its physical counterpart, and can lead to physical maladies.

A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine states, “Emotional labor has been linked to various job-related negative behaviors and adverse health outcomes, such as job dissatisfaction, loss of memory, depersonalization, job stress, hypertension, heart disease, emotional exhaustion, and burnout, and has even been shown to exacerbate cancer.” 

We are crushed underneath the weight of the repercussions from simple, minor mistakes, bound to happen at some point due to the mere fact of us being imperfect humans and not emotionless robots.

Though the cuts and scrapes and aches from working hard shifts eventually fade, the mental burden from the emotional training we as a culture expect service employees to master with next to no pay is psychologically draining and damaging.

But if this is a phenomenon unique to the United States and its culture, we can also work to dismantle the societal expectation that people in the service industry are expected to go above and beyond and provide exemplary back-breaking service just because it’s a societal convention.

We can change our attitudes not only toward people who work service jobs, but also the industry as a whole. 

Is it so important that we don’t get a flashy smile, so long as the employee at the register is cordial and wishes us a nice afternoon? Is it going to ruin the rest of our day if we think the tone with which the server spoke to us was just the tiniest bit exhausted?

We are all looking for meaningful human connections in this world, but we need to be genuine. Let’s hope this generation prioritizes empathy for other people over how they’re treated in an everyday business transaction.

So, when you are shopping next Friday and get a less-than-excited server or sales associate, think about how long they have been working and just how drained they really are instead of taking out your frustration on them.