One can’t have read Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart and continue thinking about any working stiff, woman or man, in the same way. Ever. It affects me especially when I’m at a restaurant, but also during any other commercial interaction, where the server (or whatever) and I share a brief moment of humor, acknowledgment or even intimacy. Are all these emotional exchanges suspect? Are we both presenting our front-of-the-house selves? Are they ever genuine? I’d like to think so, at least sometimes.
A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of all this and then, a week later, another made an even deeper impression.
Fly the friendly Red skies
Nobody ever accused the Soviet Union, where copious shots of vodka were the best way to elevate the mirth level, of being a really fun place to visit. And even shoppers at the GUM had to make do with sparse goods and dour sales staff. The last bastion of Soviet-era grumpiness may be coming to an end, finally, at Aeroflot.
Andrew E. Kramer’s article describes how the premier (i.e., only) Russian airline is taking after Western franchises and instilling staff in the joys of emotional labor. Now flight attendants are learning to say “please,” “thank you,” and “Hello, I’m listening to you.” “Gone are the scowls, the cold shoulders.”
Also gone, apparently, are the apparatchiks and stout babushkas. Now, the “men [are] all square-jawed and broad-shouldered, and the women to the last of them traffic-stopping beauties.” (I’m not making that up.) And they need to “smile, smile, smile.” Even when they’re not smiling purposefully, their very bodies are engaged in emotional labor.
Old-school service washed up
Even as new Russian service takes off, N. R. Kleinfield’s article tells of a very different kind of service that, if not on the way out, is surely in decline. Kleinfield notes that with the death of Lorenzo Robinson, the position of men’s room attendant at the 21 Club, a former speakeasy, will not be filled.
Men’s room attendant. Basically, they help dispense soap, towels, cologne and maybe brief conversation to swells at swanky hotels and restaurants. I don’t know if there were women’s room attendants. I never went into the women’s restroom at a tony joint to find out. But I have actually been in men’s rooms where there were attendants, and made sure to tip them whether they were of service or not. Not that I would feel like a chiseler if I didn’t (I would), but it’s the guy’s rice bowl. How could I not be a sport and participate?
This type of work brings emotional labor to another level entirely. Look at Robinson’s photo in the article. He looks elegant, even in charge, in his white coat. He’s the king who serves his subjects. But I have to ask myself: What is he really thinking? What does he do after work? Is he bitter? He doesn’t look it. Is he impoverished? He looks richer than his customers.
During the Soviet era, Russian workers had a saying. “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” It may be time to update that to “We pretend to smile . . .”