TRB FEBRUARY 1, 2013
For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me. How else to explain her visible glow whenever I strolled into the shop for a sandwich or a latte? Then I realized she lit up for the next person in line, and the next. Radiance was her job.
Pret A Manger—a London-based chain that has spread over the past decade to the East Coast and Chicago—is at the cutting edge of what the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "emotional labor." Emotional because the worker doesn't create or even necessarily sell a product or service so much as make the customer experience a positive feeling. Labor because, as Hochschild wrote in The Managed Heart (1983), the worker must "induce or suppress [his or her own] feeling" to achieve the desired effect in others. Creepy as it sounds, emotional labor is a growing presence in this economy, coming soon to a fast-food outlet near you.
The British journalist Paul Myerscough flagged Pret's reliance on emotional labor in a fascinating recent essay for the London Review of Books. (He called it "affective labor," a phrase borrowed from Marxist scholarship.)1 Pret workers, Myerscough noted, are required to master what the company calls the "Pret Behaviours," which in addition to the usual requirements—courtesy, efficiency, etc.—include "has presence," "creates a sense of fun," and "is happy to be themself" [sic]. (A list of the Pret Behaviours, posted on the company website before the London Review article appeared, has since been removed.)
Pret doesn't merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too. It will not employ anyone who is "here just for the money." Noting that one Pret worker in London got fired soon after he tried to start a union—the company maintained it was for making homophobic comments—Myerscough suggested the worker's true offense was being unhappy enough to want to start a union, since "Pret workers aren't supposed to be unhappy." The sin commenceth with the thought, not the deed.
Emotional labor is not itself new. Prostitutes have faked orgasms for millennia. With greater sincerity (one hopes), undertakers calm the grieving, nurses comfort the sick, and migrant nannies lavish on other people's children the love they aren't present to furnish back home. Flight attendants, in the pre-feminist era, calmed jittery flyers by being pretty, friendly, even a little bit flirtatious; this ended with deregulation in the early '80s as airlines stopped competing on service and started competing on price.
Pret doesn't merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too.
In all these instances, emotional labor served (legitimately or not) identifiable emotional needs. That's not true at Pret. Fast-food service is not one of the caring professions. The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have "presence" and "create a sense of fun"? Why can't he or she be doing it "just for the money"? I don't expect the swiping of my credit card to be anybody's vocation. This is, after all, the economy's bottommost rung.
Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A "mystery shopper" visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self. And these cops require literal stroking. In other workplaces, touching a co-worker may get you fired, but at Pret you have to worry about not touching co-workers enough. "The first thing I look at," Chief Executive Clive Schlee told The Telegraph last March, "is whether staff are touching each other . . . I can almost predict sales on body language alone."2
In the three decades since Hochschild published The Managed Heart, the emotional economy has spread like a noxious weed to dry cleaners, nail salons, even computer-repair shops. (Think of Apple's Genius Bars—parodied by The Onion as "Friend Bars"—where employees are taught to be empathetic and use words like "feel" as much as possible.) Back when she wrote her book, Hochschild estimated that about one-third of all jobs entailed "substantial demands for emotional labor." Today, she figures it's more like half. This is, among other things, terrible news for men, who (unlike women) are not taught from birth how to make other people happy. Perhaps that explains why men are losing ground in the service economy.
What's driving this growth? Hochschild thinks it partly reflects a class-based change in consumption patterns. As income inequality reorients the consumer marketplace toward luxury services for the rich, like "destination clubs" and "concierge medicine," consumer expectations change and trickle down. The new services "set the standards for lower-cost versions" that cater to the merely affluent. Pret shops are typically located in neighborhoods that bustle with busy professionals whom Pret fusses over like the maître d' at Alain Ducasse. The more the rich get used to fawning service, the more the rest of us—or rather, the rest of us who can afford to buy a sandwich rather than brown-bag it from home—find we rather like it, too. Eventually everybody will have to act like a goddamned concierge. I don't want to believe this, but I fear it may be true.
Why do Pret workers accept the customer's emotional state as their personal responsibility? For some, we may presume an extremely sunny personality that has merely found a serendipitous outlet. (They are selected for this quality, after all.) But what about the rest? In England, the vast majority of Pret workers are foreign immigrants, but that seems less true here. "My only thought," says Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown, "is that it is such a buyer's market in the labor market—because of so many unemployed workers per job—that employers can get away with a lot of demands on their workers that ordinarily wouldn't be possible." In other words—shhhh!—Pret clerks love-bomb customers for the money (which isn't bad by fast-food standards).
Now that I know Pret's slender blonde doesn't love me, I prefer the human contact at a D.C. lunch counter called C.F. Folks. The food is infinitely better. But I also like that the service is slower, the staff is older and grumpier, and the prevailing emotion is "Get over yourself." Try touching someone at C.F. Folks, and you just might get slugged.