The Tyranny of the Forced Smile

An interesting article in the New York Times discusses the mandated enthusiasm which increasingly characterises labour. This can be seen most emphatically in service jobs (e.g. the training required by Pret A Manger and its subsequent monitoring) but it’s also a feature of higher education:

A decade ago I was interviewed by three academics for a teaching job at a university. The final question went something like this: Would you describe yourself as a passionate teacher? A silence fell over the room; it lasted much too long. I’d surely lost the job by the time I cleared my throat and began to qualify an answer I’d yet to give. The truth was I didn’t consider myself a teacher at all — I hadn’t been in a classroom in years. I stumbled my way through a circuitous reply and concluded by saying that, yes, actually, I suppose I could describe myself as passionate, in a sense.

In a sense. I couldn’t resist the qualification. It was like a nervous tic. Moments later, the interview was over and I was leaving the room. As I shut the door behind me, the committee erupted into laughter.

Thankfully, I did manage to land a job, one I greatly enjoy, and now find myself on the other side of the hiring process. This winter I am serving on a committee charged with interviewing applicants for a new professorship here at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Wary of lawsuits, the school has seen fit to train me and my colleagues on what the law permits us to ask applicants. All questions, H.R. has advised, should relate to three core concerns: Can the applicant do the work? Will the applicant fit in? Will the applicant love the job?

I was surprised to learn that love is now considered essential to the employment relationship. Some of us are lucky enough to have lovable jobs, but this strikes me as an extreme standard to apply with respect to most positions.

This mutation of capitalism has left us with a situation where, as the author puts it, “we are all expected to whistle like Disney dwarfs”. Is this trend one of emotional labour becoming a general feature of employment? At least in the abstract, I quite like the idea of a vocation – see for instance this micro-podcast by Les Back on Sociology as a Vocation. But is this lending intellectual weight to a deeply corrosive trend in which there’s no such things as a ‘just a job’: increasingly it seems to be expected that every job should be treated as a vocation and that there’s something disreputable about those who fail to do this.

Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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