Feb 27, 2013

Cheerfulness at Shit Jobs

Tim Noah went on a tirade against a place called Pret a Manger the other day:
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.
He uses what I thought was a bit of an extreme analogy:
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.
Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
Fear? Fear that consumers might get better service and that corporations actually try to encourage this? Fear that when you are in service jobs, your boss may keep tabs on how well you interact with customers and colleagues? It’s fascism, I tell you. Or some kind of false consciousness. Apparently, Noah wants service that in no way is encouraged to be cheerful. My advice? Visit France. 
And this service ethic of fake cheeriness began in the US of A. It was one of those things I noticed and loved immediately arriving here, and over the last quarter century saw spread throughout my country of origin. The service culture – which is indeed a kind of performance – makes everything more pleasant to buy, blends consumerism with entertainment and enjoyment.
I'm not exactly sure who to side with here (though I'd lean more towards Sullivan), but my own experience with this sort of thing isn't quite captured by either.

Back in 2009 I worked for several months for minimum wage at a grocery store in Washington Heights. It was a shit job, no question about it. Yet here's my take on that experience:
Practically every minor transaction like groceries is carried out with no more than a grunt in New York. I was obstinately polite and cheerful. (Well, most of the time. Some people were just out to ruin my day, because I was a helpless cashier. I bitched them out in the most recondite language I could summon.) I turned on what little charm I possess—which for some reason is most effective with middle-aged women. Being on Broadway the store served both major Heights ethnic groups, and I befriended folks of all stripes. I carried groceries for Mrs. Finn, a harassed young Orthodox mother draped with bandoliers of children. I found the right brand of Matzahs for Mrs. Berkowitz, a caustic and insistent old lady who had been angrily dismissed by the other cashiers. I talked politics with some of the Jewish men (though not all, there were some real right-wingers that would come through occasionally). For those buying kosher, I always offered to keep the dairy and meat separate. I tried out my rusty Spanish on Mrs. Garcia, an abuela from the East Heights, which quickly improved as most of the other cashiers spoke it as well.
Now, I don't want to dismiss the deeply gendered aspect of this—certainly women have it much worse when it comes to dealing with insistent flirtation or harassment. But I implemented this strategy for a reason—because it was a shit job, letting myself wallow in resentment and bitter commiseration with the other cashiers made things more unpleasant. But when I really made an effort to be cheerful and upbeat with people, in the small way afforded by a few minutes' interaction, it made the experience far more bearable.

In my experience, most people respond positively when you're pleasant and joking with them, in turn lifting my own mood, especially in a grim place like New York. And the converse is true for negativity. For me, it was a choice between whistling through a crap work experience, soul mostly intact each day, or trudging through it and ending each shift pissed and needing a drink. (This could be just me, though I definitely fall on the introvert side when it comes to personality.)

The wrinkle is with the corporate culture, I think. If you have a "happiness policy" implemented by the soulless skull-fuck manager class (Office Space-style) enforced by secret surveillance, then not only is the labor relationship already poisoned with distrust, you probably won't get actually genuine cheerfulness, you'll more often get the kind of forced, repetitive happy affectation that is as transparent as a penis enlargement advert. But if labor and management can come to a mutual, friendly recognition that being reasonably friendly and upbeat can actually make a job better, it ought to work out better for everyone.

I imagine that's a tough needle to thread. (For more, see Peter Frase.)

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