How many stars is a smile worth? The social cost of emotional labour
At the traffic lights a woman’s head dangles from the backseat window of the silver Holden Commodore in front. It is late, quite late, and she is drunk. She lazily hurls her dinner from her mouth, and I watch as flecks of vomit fasten themselves on to her chin, only to cement themselves on to the car’s exterior. “Jesus,” I mutter to the cab driver sitting next to me, who giggles and says, “She’s certainly not going to get a good rating for that.”
We laugh together, I pay, and he drops me off on my street.
The transaction feels odd though. Unfinished. Given that he isn’t an Uber driver, my phone doesn’t pester me to rate him as I fumble at the door with my keys, and it is then that I realise what was missing. There was no looming possibility of digitised failure or success.
When the sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labour” in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, she referred to “surface acting”: a phrase used to describe how individuals are required to conceal their true feelings when performing work duties.
Retail staff grin politely while customers shroud their arms in unfolded clothes, treating them like coat hangers. Waiters graciously handle disrespectful patrons, only to be handed a cut-rate, cash-in-hand fee in a beat-up envelope come payday.
Such service workers are, according to Hochschild, practising emotional labour. We have long embraced the classist trope “the customer is always right”, an ethos that belittles the agency, esteem and principles of many.
It has been 35 years The Managed Heart was published, and customer service has changed significantly. To keep up with an overwhelming number of technological advancements, capitalism has hitched itself a digitised ride.
With the birth of the world wide web, the market expanded: first from local, family-run grocers, to large shopping malls that house mass-produced goods, and finally to a smorgasbord of online stalls and outlets.
There are now myriad instant and public ways for individuals to “rate” those they buy services from. A song or podcast is only as good as its iTunes rating; a burger joint only as “authentic” as Yelp allows; a hotel only worth staying at on TripAdvisor’s say so; a book only a good read if Goodreads agrees.A smile is worth a pixellated star. Or five. If you’re good.
In China a “social credit” system is rolling out before its full launch in 2020. It will afford everybody a personal scorecard, assessed via complex and intrusive surveillance methods. If citizens are “good” they’re rewarded, with access to discounts, loans and better jobs. If they’re “bad” they’re punished.
When my boyfriend and I sat down to watch Nosedive, the first episode of Black Mirror’s third season, I found its obviousness a little vexing. Lacie, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is meant to be all of us: an anxious “life performer” who frolics about nervously in a world where people are rated. And their ratings loom above their heads like some kind of terrifying faux crown, following them into coffee shops, bus terminals, public bathrooms, their homes.
This world, an eerie three-dimensional rendering of a formulaic Instagram post, is explicit. Everybody is working to raise ratings through cheap smiles and shallow gestures. There are no secrets.
This was what I didn’t like: how blatant the surface acting was. What’s so terrifying, perhaps, about the way emotional labour is practised in our digitised world is that it is insidious and quiet. It dictates our interactions softly.
We don’t yet have the appropriate means or language to discuss how all of us stage kindness online. Or goodness. Or intelligence. Or whatever else it is we want to convey. How, when we draft a tweet, or order a pizza, or swipe right in a search for a new lover, we’re signing on to 4G shiftwork: hoping for love heart-shaped tips, or reciprocated online attraction, or a hike in our Uber rating.
Recently my grandmother complained to me about the number of Facebook friends she had lost; their profiles disappearing from her feed once she started to draft statuses about Yemen, about femicide, about matters unable to be summarised easily, poked fun at, shared. Friends and family started vanishing the moment she stopped surface acting, when instead she leaked confessions about big pharma, and Palestine, and asbestos conspiracies.
Online life is real life – and increasingly, the digital economy is not just symbolic
The writer and Guardian podcaster Leigh Alexander, reflecting on – or perhaps mourning for – once-upon-a-time friendships, considers online interactions to consist mainly of an “economy of ‘likes’”. Facebook is work, and Mark Zuckerberg has each of us performing our duties behind simulated desks: masking true feelings so as not to disturb our hard-earned collection of accumulated reactions, likes, clicks and friend databases. At our fingertips a vibrant and bustling economy of people, of pages, of places flourishes, and it is up to us to maintain it appropriately.
Sitting in my living room after midnight, the taxi driver long gone, I still feel stuck. Beyond a handful of cash and a wave, he drove into the evening like-less. I’ve become hardened to a transactional system that relies on likes, on stars, on plugs – and I feel as though I have robbed him of worth.
On Christmas Day my grandfather – a man delighted by the festivities – leaned back in his armchair and rested his hands on his stomach. His wife, his ex-wife, and his daughter buttered bread in the kitchen, and scrubbed gravy off dishes and sorted through duffle bags full of gifts. I want to veil each of their necks with five stars. In this day and age if you look up from your screen, you will likely find a woman someplace nearby, scouring bowls and platters.
It is tempting to speak about social media – and the self-curation that marries itself to it – as if Instagram and Facebook and Twitter are nothing more than simulated scrapbooks. HTML journals that, due to our capitalist tendencies, have evolved into work portfolios. But online life is real life – and, increasingly, the digital economy is not just symbolic. For social media managers, hashtags translate into weekly pay cheques. And social media managers – in some kind of inevitable conclusion – are overwhelmingly (between 70% and 80%) women.
As much as the postmodernist fabric of our digital world seems distressingly far from what we know and love – from board games with paper money, and feasts that are devoured without being photographed, and car lifts without synchronised PayPal accounts that track kilometres, and traffic, and time – the way emotional labour fastens itself to women bears an uncanny similarity to the past. Women, with full and open hearts, have long healed their nearest and dearest with love-reactions. Nostalgia for a “simpler” time comes undone when we realise that such a time was made easy by the invisible emotional labour of our mothers and grandmothers.
A few days after Christmas I waited outside a friend’s house for my Uber driver. He pulled over and, as he slowed down, I walked – slowly but assertively – in front of his car. As I hopped into the passenger seat and smiled, he locked eyes with me and mentioned that “I shouldn’t just walk in front of a car like that”, that it was “dangerous, Madison”. He was frustrated and condescending, forgetting for a moment that the ball was in my court. Hearing him then attempt to win my five-star rating was distressing; he overcompensated with an abundance of questions, followed by a collection of cheap jokes, all made with trepidation. I wished, as he pulled up at my apartment complex and my phone buzzed, that I’d called a cab instead.
• This is an edited version of the article I’ll Give You a Smile for Five Stars, which originally appeared in the literary magazine Kill Your Darlings