Below is my final paper for Sociological Theory.
I wrote about my job as a gas station and convenience store cashier in connection
to Arlie Russell Hochschild's theories of emotion work and emotion labor, found in
her book, The Managed Heart.
_____December 7, 2010
_____Ever since September of 2008, when I was hired by Shipley Stores (Tom’s), I have identified myself as a gas station and convenience store cashier and worker. Shipley is a large energy company for Central Pennsylvania that also runs a chain of gas station and convenience stores (Tom’s), as well as a few Arby’s restaurants and Cigarette Cellar discount stores. I began working at Tom’s during my senior year of high school, during which I was taking a full load of courses at three local colleges. I worked an average of twenty hours a week during that year and a typical day looked like this: work at 5:30am until noon, home for lunch, class at one school from 1-1:50pm, babysitting from 2-5pm, home for dinner, class at another school from 6:30-9:30pm, and home to do homework before going to bed and having to work at 5:30am again the next day. During my first year away at Bridgewater College, I worked during all breaks. I also worked an average of 35 hours a week during this past summer. Because I work so much, my job has become a large part of who I am.
_____While stressful or annoying at times, I believe that I can honestly say that I love working at Tom’s. However, because my work duties include a variety of emotionally laborious tasks, according to Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983), I should feel more frustrated, estranged, and “mentally detached” (p. 17). While I have certainly felt frustration with my job and while I do recognize the emotional components of my job description, I disagree that this must entail some type of acting and consequently cause me to become estranged and mentally detached. I also disagree with Hochschild in other areas, such as her application of acting and various job characteristics, but I agree with a number of her theoretical concepts, such as company control and various job and individual characteristics. Furthermore, some of Hochschild’s concepts have spurred me to question how I feel about my job and analyze different areas of it in ways I never had before. For example, I never questioned the motives of my boss, whether in regards to her sincerity or her authenticity. Throughout all of these theoretical concepts, two overarching themes have come up time and time again: that of regular customers and that of a genuine alternative to acting.
_____Throughout her book, The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild discusses different types of emotional labor and how interpersonal service jobs that require first-person interaction (whether a flight attendant, a bill collector, or a gas station cashier) commercialize feeling and lead to estrangement. In considering my experiences with my interpersonal service job of being a gas station and convenience store cashier, I disagree with Hochschild about her application of acting because my job differs from those she describes in a number of ways. Emotional labor is feeling or ignoring a certain emotion to make a required outward appearance (p. 7). Hochschild says that, as emotional labor continues, “‘loving the job’ becomes part of the job” (p. 6). However, I have always felt that I genuinely do love my job, even in spite of the occasional frustration or feeling of being overworked. Before reading Hochschild’s book, I never before questioned this belief. Hochschild discusses the different atmospheres and attitudes that different service workers create through emotional labor (p. 11), but I deeply believe that it is most important to be truly genuine. When I first started working at Tom’s, I was mostly quiet and shy. I did not act as if I were something I am not, but was still outgoing enough to be a good cashier. As I grew comfortable with my job, my slight shyness faded into being genuinely personable.
_____Hochschild makes the argument that, similar to labor workers, service workers must mentally detach themselves from their task in order to survive (p. 17). On occasion, I have done this in order to get through a bad day at work, but I have found that I am ultimately less satisfied when I prevent myself from focusing on my job. If I actively mentally detach myself from my work, I end up feeling phony, which Hochschild explains is a part of emotional labor when a service worker does not have the time or stamina to be genuine and he or she resorts to an insincere display (p. 21). I have experienced this feeling of insincerity, but for me, it occurs when I focus on the negatives of my job. I believe that being phony is prevented at my job because we truly have the freedom to be genuine. For example, after my coworker, Amber, experienced the death of a friend, she left me at the counter while she went to stock the cooler and had the freedom to release her grief through crying. Additionally, I feel that I am able to express my genuine feelings to a number of regular customers and, even though I may not be comfortable doing so with every customer that comes in, this handful of favorite customers provides me with enough freedom to be genuine that I am kept satisfied enough to be genuinely nice to the others.
_____According to Hochschild, true genuineness does not occur because emotional laborers must perform some kind of acting – whether surface, where the acting is felt as not genuine, or deep, where the acting is felt to be genuine (p. 48). Hochschild compares to Rousseau’s concept of the Noble Savage, who acts with natural feeling (p. 22). However, she goes on to say that “maintaining a difference between feeling and feigning over the long run leads to strain” (p. 90). She clearly understands the difference between acting and genuine feeling, but never seems to acknowledge the fact that true genuineness within emotional labor can prevent the estrangement that is caused by acting. As stated above, not every customer that comes in receives this genuine communication from me, but I have a true connection with enough regulars that a feeling of estrangement is prevented. For example, Richie moved into town at the beginning of this summer and we instantly forged a connection because I told him why I chose to attend school in Virginia and he genuinely understood because he grew up in Virginia. In terms of how often he comes to the store, he barely qualifies as a regular, but I feel that our friendship is genuine, even to the extent that he invited me to visit him as soon as I returned from school. This one real connection makes me genuinely happy enough to do emotional labor without being insincere.
_____Hochschild explains how flight attendants talk about feelings as created, governable, and controllable (p. 133), which I can only somewhat understand. If I am having a particularly bad day, such as earlier this summer after recently breaking up with my boyfriend, I can make myself feel happy in my job, but only through focusing on what I love about my job, not by lying to myself that I just love all aspects of my job. Richie is again an example of this because he represents my core value of camaraderie. By focusing on him and other regulars, as well as my coworker friendships, I can distract myself from a bad day by reminding myself that I genuinely do love my job, or at least the less tangible and positive interpersonal aspects of it. Similarly, Hochschild discusses how some service jobs (those that deal positively with customers, like representatives) ask employees to “believe in the company” (p. 143). With my job, while I am a public representative of the larger Shipley Energy Company, I have not felt particular pressure to explicitly support the company. However, I do believe in the values that I see within my work, such as camaraderie with regulars or compassion with my coworkers. This is what makes my job meaningful to me and not just simply a series of job requirements (p. 89).
_____There are many reasons why the emotional labor of my service job does not leave me estranged and almost all of them are because characteristics of my job directly oppose some of the characteristics Hochschild uses to describe emotional labor. Specifically, my job does not really reflect the hierarchy of secrets of most work environments (p. 53). I think this is because I have some seniority within the store and is exemplified by how my boss, Nikki, told me that Amber was transferring back to our store. She instructed me not to tell anyone else, which reflects the hierarchy, but exempts me from it because Nikki respects me as a committed employee. Similarly, Hochschild says the “customer is king,” which is true in most cases, but I feel more equal with many regulars (p. 86). I disagree most with Hochschild about is this: “Cashiers and salespeople…seldom get a chance to know any one customer very well for very long” (p. 150). Obviously, from the stories above, I do not feel that this is true for me. While I certainly do not know all customers equally well and I do not claim to know my favorite regulars very well at all, I know many well enough to feel a genuine connection with them. Richie and I share stories about Virginia and college. Another regular, Jimmy, and I exchange playful jokes and hugs. And the local cops who frequent the store and I share stories about life and love. Part of the reason this is possible is because Tom’s is situated in such a small town. Much like Bridgewater, it is easy to establish camaraderie within a small community.
_____Although I disagree with many of Hochschild’s conclusions, I also agree with her about aspects of company control and some job and individual characteristics. Hochschild highlights the importance of up-selling (p. 4) and how management determines the priority of different tasks (p. 121). Suggestive selling is definitely emphasized at my job, both through the G.U.E.S.T. service philosophy (Greet, Understand, Educate, Suggest, Thank) and the daily close-out sheets that require us to estimate to what percentage of customers we suggestive sold (Peters 2010). These tasks are assigned by company management, as early as the first day of orientation and training, but store management lightens the responsibility by making suggestive selling into a competitive game. I have also witnessed Hochschild’s concept of speed-up, where increased business increases the demand for efficiency and decreases the ability to be personal (pp. 122, 133). For example, during Thanksgiving break, I was working alone and the borough was lighting the Christmas trees in the town square, so there was a rush of customers buying hot drinks. I noticed that I was less personal to most customers, but there happened to be a regular, Jay, there at the same time. He smiled at me with empathy because he frequently witnesses customer rushes and this genuine connection forced me to slow down and again be personable with the rest of the customers. I have also seen how being impersonal makes many customers uncomfortable because, if I do not meet their eye contact, I can feel them being reluctant to leave without me acknowledging them. Being a member of such a small workforce and having a connection with a number of regulars makes my room more genuine than most emotional labor.
_____In general, I agree with Hochschild’s description of the emotional labor that should constitute service jobs. For instance, Hochschild explains that emotional jobs tend to have a high turnover rate (p. 146). This is definitely true even with a simple cashier job – over the past two years, a total of fourteen people have come and/or gone: three of them left, four were added, and seven were hired and fired (two of whom came and left while I was gone for a semester). Similarly, Hochschild argues that women are better at “nice” emotional work (p. 170), which is illustrated by the fact that only two of those fourteen were men (one fired and one still working). Also, I find myself empathizing with other cashiers who express “a robot quality” (p. 23), somewhat because I have felt the desire to do the same, but more because I believe I avoid it well and wish I could teach them how to do so as well.
_____I also have experienced the desire “to ‘depersonalize’ situations” (p. 132), especially with particularly irritable customers. One of my responsibilities is to make sure that customers paying with cash for gas do not drive off after I approve them on the register. One day, a customer appeared to be leaving, so I wrote her plate number down right before her boyfriend, who was already in the store, paid for his slushie and her gas. After he leaves, his girlfriend stomps in the store and demands the piece of paper, even though I can still recite her plate number to this day. I was starkly upset by this occurrence because I did not depersonalize it. While I believe that depersonalization is possible and sometimes necessary, I take pride in embracing such conflicts and being able to resolve them in a personable way.
_____Hochschild cites Goffman and says that we must not take the small as trivial (p. 10). This is evident at Tom’s when I donate a quarter or so to a customer who is a bit short on money. By breaking the norm of being self-involved, these customers become startlingly aware that the small is not trivial and express the most genuine gratitude I have ever seen, much like the sincerity Hochschild describes by certain expressions, words, and tones (p. 77). However, some customers do not even acknowledge me as a human, much less express sincere gratitude, which I think depends on how they see me; whether as a helper, worker, friend, or something less. Hochschild also explains how “gratitude lays the foundation for loyalty” (p. 101). Although she discusses this in terms of a new worker being taken into the family of the company, I believe it is more important in regards of the gratitude and loyalty of the customer. By selflessly giving someone a quarter, I foster genuine gratitude, which leads to a more loyal loyalty than any suggestive sell could ever hope to establish.
_____As stated previously, I also believe that my job allows a lot of freedom, even as a service job that requires emotional labor. This parallels Hochschild’s discussion of the “‘love ethic’ in a free market” because I felt a great deal of autonomy in searching for and finding a job (p. 72). Because of this, I feel more responsible to enjoy my job because it is my fault if I do not like it. While Hochschild would say that this is done through acting, I have been able to do so through establishing genuine camaraderie with regulars and coworkers. Furthermore, because the importance of feelings are based on the importance of a particular person (p. 172) and I matter very little to the non-regulars, I feel that I have additional freedom to hate my job if I really wanted to, since my feelings do not matter to the majority of customers. Similarly, my job is typically viewed as having very little prestige and, while it is a very public job, I feel that I am “free to hate” it if I wanted to because most people would understand hatred of such a lowly job (p. 189). I agree with Hochschild in these three areas of freedom, although I believe that they can also be applied to my emotionally laborious job because of its low status and low prestige.
_____Regardless of where I disagree or agree with Arlie Russell Hochschild, reading her book has prompted me to question what I believe and how I feel about my job, as well as why I believe those things and feel those ways. The Managed Heart ultimately culminates in a discussion of sincerity and authenticity in contrast to surface and deep acting. An example of surface acting would be appearing to be busy in front of a boss or supervisor, whereas deep acting would be internalizing a love of the job. Sincerity refers to simply refusing to act (p. 191), which I see as a kind of integrity, and authenticity refers to spontaneously knowing and feeling (p. 193), which I see as a kind of realness. I never before would have framed my job in terms of acting and I still do not want to do so because having integrity and being genuine have always been deeply important to me. After reading Hochschild, I thought critically about past work experiences and paid more attention when I worked a total of twenty-two hours over Thanksgiving break. Specifically, I began to question everyone’s motives, whether mine, my coworkers’, or my customers’.
_____What are my motives as a gas station and convenience store cashier? Certainly, it is a job that I need in order to make money, but if I went to work only for money I believe that I would be wholly dissatisfied, so I instead focus on selfless and intangible values like establishing camaraderie with regulars and building friendships, making eye contact with every customer and acknowledging them as human, or being selfless and giving a quarter to someone I will never see again. These are the things that keep me from being estranged, not mental detachment or acting, whether surface or deep. What are Nikki’s motives as a gas station and convenience store manager? Certainly, it is a job that she needs in order to make money, but she genuinely works at establishing real connections with her employees. I believe she is genuine and that this is evident through small things like occasionally texting and being friends on Facebook. It is also shown in larger things, such as her allowing me time to cry over my recently broken-up relationship and hug her before I started attending to my work duties. It is this, this freedom to be genuine, that I appreciate most about my job. What are the regulars’ motives as being parts of my life? I cannot answer why they have reached out to me and responded to my reaching out to them, but when compared to the customers with whom I have not connected, I have to believe that these connections are genuine. So where does this genuineness come from? And how is it different from Hochschild’s concepts of sincerity and authenticity?
_____Early in her book, Hochschild says that everyone “offers up feeling as a momentary contribution to the collective good” (p. 18). To me, this sounds very altruistic and selfless, something that could serve as the basis for genuine emotional service. However, throughout the rest of the book, Hochschild frames emotional labor as something done primarily for selfish reasons, whether for individual protection like depersonalization or for company success like suggestive selling and speed-up. Later in the book, she quotes C. Wright Mills: “‘Sincerity’ is detrimental to one’s job, until the rules of salesmanship and business become a ‘genuine’ aspect of oneself” (p. 35). To me, this sounds like it is only possible to be sincere in emotional labor – to be good at one’s job, in other words – if the values of that job are internalized, even if those values did not belong to the person to begin with. The fact that any type of acting deeply bothers me comes down to how greatly I abhor a lack of integrity. And so, because my core values include camaraderie, compassion, and connections, I apply integrity by also expressing these at my job. It is certainly exhausting at times, but the fact that these things are so important to me really does keep me satisfied. I am profoundly thankful for the freedom within my job to express these values, especially to my coworkers and the regulars. I believe they genuinely appreciate the fact that I am genuine, even at work, and this makes it possible for me to also be genuine to more negative customers and remain genuine on more negative days.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart. London, England: University
_____of California Press.
Peters, David Scott. 2010. “Restaurant Services: GUEST.” Restaurant Report, LLC.
_____Retrieved December 3, 2010