Forced Smile

There’s a Reason Your Waiter Hates You

Faking it is the new feudalism. Why the low pay and job insecurity that come with “emotional work” is creating a nation full of phonies.

Judd Pilossof/Getty

In the future we will all be waiters. Let’s hope we can be rude ones.

Ninety percent of women waiters get harassed sexually, according to a recent study. Why is the number so high? Partly because waitstaff depends on tips to raise their wages above the federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for “tipped employees.” That means a waiter needs to establish a relationship with each customer: Serving food and drinks isn’t just a job, but a micro-flirtation on very unequal terms. The wage structure of waiting tables is a sexual-harassment machine.

OK, it isn’t really true that in the future we will all be waiters, but it’s sort of true: More jobs involve what social theorists call “affective labor,” meaning emotional work—setting up micro-relationships that make customers feel good. It’s true of retail and sales. It’s true of customer service. It’s true of the caregiving professions, such as nursing and home health care. These sectors are growing because they’re hard to mechanize or offshore, unlike doing paperwork and making things, which we mostly leave to algorithms, machines, and faraway people. And even jobs that used to be coolly transactional, like driving a cab, are turning into frenetic self-marketing campaigns, thanks to individualized services like Uber and Lyft.

We’re human, so of course we sometimes want and need to connect, and we can’t always be sincere. The problem comes in when unequal economic power extorts emotional work. There is something indecent in asking people to fake a feeling to make a living. Sexual harassment is an especially awful symptom, but it’s also the jagged edge of a subtler and more pervasive intrusion on a key aspect of autonomy: the right to be yourself. In fact, the intrusion is so subtle and so pervasive that it is possible to lose track of whether you’re faking it or not. A job becomes a training, now just in how to be, but in who to be. If it’s indecent to ask employees to fake a feeling, it’s worse to ask them to cultivate a false self.

It’s peculiar that Americans accept these intrusions so easily. No culture has ever been more concerned with emotional authenticity. We have devised a constitutional right to love whom you want, and to have that love legally recognized. This change is rooted partly in recognizing that asking people to remain closeted, cover up, and generally fake it throughout their lives is as cruel as it has been usual. The change is an unalloyed good: It makes us more humane and our relationships more real. But it is strange that the same country is enthusiastically pursuing capitalism’s transformation into a network of emotional work, with all the mandatory faking that entails.

Part of the reason is that Americans tend not to talk about the economy as a system of power, and so we have to be jarred by extreme examples—like sexual harassment—to think of emotional work as something forced, mandatory for the economically vulnerable and optional for everyone else. We ignore that rudeness, grabbiness, and worse—what used to be called “taking liberties”—have become economic privileges, while making nice has become part of the job of the less privileged. Of course, that’s nothing new: Emotional work is part of the oldest profession—but it’s a growing part of everyone’s experience, and we need to see it more clearly.

Around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, fans of capitalism liked to point out that it made clerks smile. Communist-era clerks were famously rude and indifferent, because they had no motive to make people happy. In the free-market service economy, a customer could expect both a Coke and a smile; otherwise, the person serving up the Coke would get fired.

It’s sometimes true—and smiles are nicer than scowls; but mandatory smiles are part of an irony at the heart of capitalism. Early advocates of the free market, like Adam Smith, made two distinct arguments for capitalism. One was that markets made people independent, because they could choose a career and a boss, rather than answer to a feudal lord, or, worse, a slave-master. In other words, markets were impersonal, but that was good, because sometimes personal ties were cruel and oppressive.

The other argument for capitalism was that markets make people nicer. Smith and others saw that buying and selling always have an emotional aspect: Persuasion, seduction, appealing to the wish to be liked and admired, are all parts of bargaining, even if they end in a simple “market price”—say, $2.13 + 20 percent. Because bargaining means taking other people’s feelings into account, they encourage smiling, and listening—even if the goal is manipulation.

Both points hold true. Markets make people independent from traditional, mandatory roles and relationships, such as family and gender hierarchies that assign you specific work because of who you are. But at the same time, markets involve people in new roles and relationships, which can feel just as mandatory and unequal. Markets break people out of one kind of intimate intrusion, then involve them in another, in which work tells you who to be.

I don’t like rudeness. I was raised, and am temperamentally inclined, to obsessively say please-and-thank-you-so-much, and a rude or indifferent barista can hurt my feelings as easily as anyone’s. But if I could live in an economy where everyone had the privilege to be rude rather than the obligation to fake it, I would. In that economy, the price of a smile would only be a smile, and flirtation could be exchanged only for flirtation. Having $20 in your pocket wouldn’t entitle you to anything but a second overpriced latte.

The only way to that economy is through more employee power and more job security—just the things that are falling away in a precarious and de-unionized time. That means things are likely to get worse before they get better. Meantime, let’s keep this in mind: Faking it is the new feudalism. It is the key to an economic order of emotional work that tells people who and how to be on the basis of where they fall in the social and economic hierarchy. That wasn’t OK under the old feudalism that Adam Smith rejected, and it isn’t OK under the new feudalism that his heirs have helped to create.