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Labor of Love The enforced happiness of Pret A Manger

Ohanian Comment: Eons ago, I was the only teacher on our middle school faculty who refused to enroll in a "positive attitude" professional development course offered throughout the district (teachers were pressured to enroll). I'd looked at the curriculum and felt it was more artificial and formulaic than I could bear. Teaching 7th and 8th grade is hard enough without layering on phony rhetoric. After two lessons, my team teaching partner told me I didn't have to worry about missing anything, and she added an accolade. "Besides, you already have the most positive attitude about kids of anybody in the school." She and I were 180 degrees apart in approaches--and for six years this worked very well for us as a team. f Then administration split us up and sent us to different schools. But that's another story.

I predicted that the kids would spot the Positive Attitude phoniness immediately. And I was right. They began mimicking teachers' formulaic I like the way you....

Compliments became so suspect that whenever faculty wanted to compliment each other--along the lines of "I like your new hairdo"--they had to add, "Really. I mean it. Really."

I predict that when Bill Gates reads the article below he'll phone Charlotte Danielson and get her to add half a dozen pages to her teacher evaluation rubric.

by Timothy Noah

or 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. . . .

1 Specifically, the idea of "affective labor" came from the Italian Autonomists. One of the central texts, apparently, is Empire by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, published in 2000. Don't ask me what this book says because I don't speak Marxist.

2 The last thing Schlee looks at, to judge from my own experience, is whether the company returns calls from the press. I phoned Pret HQ twice, twice pushing "0" for "operator," and twice got a recording. I twice left messages saying I was on deadline with a story about Pret, and in the second message I specified that the story was critical. My call was not returned, and I'm not convinced anybody ever even heard my messages. So much for the personal touch.

You can read the rest of this article at the hot link below.

— Timothy Noah
The New Republic





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