Let’s start with one of my favourite legends from the Soviet Union. With formal political collapse imminent, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had made great strides towards modernising the toppling superstate through his glasnost and perestroika programme. Part of this ideological game-changing attitude was allowing previously reviled big businesses to set up shop (literally) in the Soviet economy. The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990, to extraordinary success. However, an unexpected part of this introduction of American big business to Soviet workers was the sudden introduction of American customer service skills. It was not enough to merely sell the product – one had to sell it with a cheery attitude too. This led to some confusions for the new staff at McDonald’s .
“After several days of training about customer service at McDonald’s, a young Soviet teenager asked the McDonald’s trainer a very serious question: ‘Why do we have to be so nice to the customers? After all, WE have the hamburgers, and they don’t!'”
And there it is. The fundamental strangeness of the ‘customer service skills’ that every single worker virtually requires in the service industry. We take them for granted – the forced cheeriness, the ‘how-is-your-day-going’s, the perma-smile that lies on every staff face like a coating of dried ketchup on a table. As workers, we take the expectation of these skills for granted too – we smile at rude customers, we ask how their days are going even when our own day has already brought us to tears in the back room, we remain polite even as a customer spits and screams and swears. We are not paid any extra for the emotional work that we do as workers on top of the tables we wait, the coffee we make, the hair we cut, or whatever it is our job title requires us to do. So, I hear you say, is that a bad thing? Well, let’s give it a thought.
‘Emotional labour’ was a term coined by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She studied the work of American air hostesses and the effect that a permanent expectation of acting ‘happy’ all the time had on their professional and personal lives. She discovered that workers were often left ‘burned out’ and depressed due to putting on a cheerful facade for hours at a time; despite their own internal feelings of exhaustion or anger at abusive customers, they were forced by the professional expectations of their jobs to act happy.
In my own work as a barista (coffee brewer), I have also experienced the exhaustion that comes from the endless cheerful chirruping that is expected of me regardless of my own internal feelings, the demands from managers that I ‘smile more’ at the customers even as I make six coffees in a row whilst stress levels balloon around me. And that’s not even counting the fact that the burden of emotional labour that falls disproportionately on women, in both the professional and personal realms of life. Whilst a male colleague may snap and sigh without judgement, a female worker is deemed ‘unprofessional’ or ‘rude’ for the same behaviour.
But regardless of gender, it cannot be denied that the growth of the service industry (last year, India had the second highest growing service sector after China) has led to a massive increase in demands for emotional labour in the workplace – the dreaded ‘customer service skills.’ It is no longer enough to do the job – you must enjoy the job. You must act happy, you must be polite. Remember, the customer is always right.
All well and good if you do enjoy your job – but what about when you don’t? When you’re tired, underpaid, and a customer or manager has just screamed at you? Are these customer service skills still on your side? I say no.
The fundamental truth of customer service skills is that they are there to benefit the company, not the worker. Customer service skills are an insidious part of the machinery of capitalism in a way that is rarely critically examined. They are less about social skills and holding a delightful conversation, and more about the self-control to not scream back in the face of the person who just called you a ‘fucking retard.’ When it comes to abuse of service workers the desperate unfairness of the system becomes even more acute. The service worker who desperately wants to defend themselves shuts their mouth out of fear, not politeness. The self-esteem destroying experiences fall disproportionately on those who are most likely in service jobs (generally very low-wage) – the poor and vulnerable, the young.
If one was treated by an intimate partner or family member in the way that members of the public frequently do, that would constitute abuse. But hey, they are the customer, not your boyfriend or mother, and the customer is always right under capitalism.
Here, the worker has little to no rights because they’re replaceable. It’s been picked up on by Marx himself, if you need further convincing, long before the words ‘customer service’ were even a twinkle in the eyes of a board of executives. Only here, it is less about alienation from a product as it is about alienation from one’s emotions. Once more, capitalism has found a way to commodify something that should never be profitable, and that something is your emotions. Whilst one might find it difficult to put a coal mine worker and a waitress in the same revolutionary context, I still think there is value in trying to find solidarity as members of an oppressed working class.
Customer service skills are there to make sure you remain a good little worker in the industry, to make sure you keep raking in the profits for the company even if it comes at the expense of your dignity, your emotional well-being.
Are customer service skills fundamentally always a bad thing? Well, nobody wants to be served by a surly waiter, but I would argue that when we focus too much on whether the service worker smiles enough, and not whether they are being paid enough or treated respectfully, we focus on the wrong things. Capitalism might be screwing all of us, but it screws some of us more than others, and often in a more visible way. The service worker who cries in the back room after attending an abusive customer, has to walk back out, smiling again as they make you a hamburger. It is a tiny reference but a relevant example of how profit often trumps human emotion.
So what is to be done? Well, as much as I love to build verbal barricades and wax Marx lyrically, I still have to go back to my minimum wage service job tomorrow, and provide service with a smile. But I’ll still think fondly of that Soviet McDonald’s worker. And to everyone who’s utilising the skills of a service worker, the least you can do is be polite.
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