Feelings and feeling management have become an essential aspect to business. As managers and workers alike both need to work and act a certain way in order to perform their jobs correctly, work itself becomes less of a task requiring manual labor and more of one requiring emotional labor. As our emotional state becomes crucial in our job performance and role, our feelings become commoditized and literally “sold” to customers and clients of the company we work for.
On the Commodification of Feelings
The commodification of feelings is a concept coined by Arlie Hochschild that refers to the buying and selling of emotions and emotional states – “what is sold as an aspect of labor power is deep acting” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 250). In determining what factors contribute to this necessity to commoditize the way we feel, Hochschild indicates that it is not just our economic situation that plays into our “social” class, but also (and more importantly) it the great obligation of assigning meaning to our jobs (for both ourselves and those who experience our job, like our customers, clients, and superiors) that are most important in situations where “feeling rules are of upmost salience” (ibid.).
Rules governing feelings – that is, their expression and interpretation – varies among social classes as indicated by different social classes being able to manage meanings in different ways. Again, it is important to stress that it is the on-the-job feeling that we are referring to when describing social statuses, as any other salient descriptor – income, education, etc – is a byproduct of such. Hochschild (1983) presents an important question on this: “Is this what I do feel or what I have to feel?” (ibid.). The middle-class person seems to be focal point of the issue of feeling rules and their salience for Hochschild, and as such it will be the entry point into how I will subscribe contemporary examples of middle class workers to the concept of commodication of feelings.
For the most part, middle-class jobs do not require outward displays of emotion. Factory workers and those in ground-level industrial jobs (which seems to be the picture drawn in our heads when we think of this class of people) are valued not at how they feel or who they are, but at the product of their labor. It is their labor value, then, that industrious businesses seek to commoditize and capitalize on. In suppressing our very human desire to display these emotions we fall victim to a sense of emotional dissonance – and the workers then “work to make feeling and frame consistent with situation… in obeisance to rules not completely of their own making” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 247).
There is a point suggested that is contrary to Fromm’s (1947) illustration of a person’s propensity to need to sell their personality and emotions in order to be successful (p. 72), which I have found easier to relate to more often than not. Hochschild (1983) proposes that it is not an emotional transaction that takes place, but rather a series of actions called “deep acting” that allow us to manage the impressions we make on those around us (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 249). Translated into the work environment, where the true commodization of feelings takes place, our feelings and “acting” become our way to impersonate the “ideal” worker whom we are playing. Our roles in our job, then, become literal acting roles that we fulfill, in which we play out our lives on a stage that we enter and exit upon hiring and firing, moving to and leaving from, and life and death – the very essence of Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical perspective.
Let’s take a look at two examples: military funerals and public interaction (when people discover I’m a member of the Armed Forces), and one flight attendant’s account of changing times.
As a representative of the Armed Forces of the United States I play a vital role in the promotion and actualization of national defense. The U.S. Marine Corps is rich in history, tradition, and most importantly, respect, and aside from all of this combined with my liberal and socially progressive political views creating an incredible sense of role strain, there is a grandiose sense of deep acting that goes on every day in my life. I do not benefit from being tucked away behind an office desk all of the time (albeit most of my day is spent alienated from society and trapped behind a keyboard and monitor), for often times I am paraded about in my Dress Blues in front of mourning family members of deceased, former Marines. There are two instances, actually, in which my feelings are commoditized when I am in uniform, both of which I will provide an example. The first is the aforementioned: funerals. When I am serving as a pall bearer or in the rifle detail at a military funeral I am often approached by family members of the deceased who are, more often then not, veterans of some foreign war themselves, and see in me everything they saw in their own history and deceased loved one. When I speak to these people I fall victim to the normative expectations of the funeral. I may not necessarily care at all that someone has died and that I am at a funeral, but when the situation presents itself, I must try to care and try to behave appropriately mournful – that is, I must make an “inner effort to produce not the appearance of feeling, but rather a real feeling that has been self-induced” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 237). This process is a product of the inherent emotional labor that comes with military enlistment. Since I represent the institution, my feelings are sold for the wages I receive in exchange for my service – feelings that are a “commodity engineered to further corporate and organizational interests” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 238). I cannot say that I do not believe in the wars that we fight, nor can I speak out against military actions overseas and how I believe they are only meant to produce profit instead of bettering humanity (or whatever other propagandized sentiments are used to motivate bloodshed). Instead, I must act like a patriotic America-can-never-be-wrong pro-freedom and democracy soldier because I am supposed to act like that – I must “control [my] behavior in order to present an acceptable image of [my] self to others” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 236). Success as a military person is grounded on the “commercial reshaping of emotions,” in that the measurement of success in my occupation requires me to control (and often times, as in the case of funeral duties, to fabricate through acting) my emotions “in order to express the appropriate feeling state (trustworthy, dedicated, ambitious, caring, etc.) associated with the occupation” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 238).
The second example comes from Dr. Helen Davey, a psychoanalyst and marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles. In Davey’s (2010) article, Faking Positive Emotions for our Jobs: At What Cost?, she describes how Dr. Hochschild’s example of a “smoothly warm airline hostess” in describing the emotion-management perspective relates very well to her own experience as a Pan Am flight attendant.
In her early years growing up in the 1950’s, she explains, she developed a sense of self that dismissed negativity – a world in which she “should be happy, always smiling, never angry, and eternally positive” (Davey 2010). When she graduated from college, this mindset that had taught her to never express emotion other than glee led her to a job with Pan Am as a flight attendant, which “positive attitudes only” (ibid.). This is necessary, of course, because having flight crewmembers who are displaying any other type of emotion other than confidence and positivity can lead to bad business in the future – “to show feelings of fear, anger, or sadness was inappropriate and could frighten nervous travelers” (ibid.). Her smiles, as she says, were genuine and he “Pan Am family” was a great inspiration for feelings of pride, respect, and confidence.
Unfortunately, though, with the difficulties facing the economy in the 80’s, flight attendant jobs were becoming harder and harder to cope with, as the emotional labor it took to keep up with the occupational demands (the always positive, always cheery, always helpful flight attendant) had long-term negative side effects, particularly in the case of “Vitamin P,” in which Davey refers to flight attendants’ usage of the prescription drug prozac in order to mask the emotions that they feel inside (ibid.). She concludes her article with a somber but realistic altruism: “The dehumanization of human beings when they are regarded as resources to be used and commercialized strikes a universal chord, and as Dr. Hochschild pointed out nearly 30 years ago, we are all partly flight attendants” (ibid.).
Throughout the working class world we can see different aspects of the flight attendant mentality; multiple cases of someone having to commit themselves to a specific emotion in order to do their job. Sometimes it is not a certain emotion that must be adopted, but the suppression of emotion all together that is required of our jobs. Hochschild’s refutation of Fromm’s (1947) idea of people selling their personalities illustrates an emotional appreciation that is often times subordinated by our desire and almost idolization of efficiency: that many jobs “call for an appreciation of display rules, feeling rules, and a capacity for deep acting” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 250). Whether we do a job that does not require emotion or provide a service that is almost all emotional labor, the one thing that remains constant is our emotions and the fact that we have them. This is what makes us human, this “creation and the sustaining of meanings” (ibid.), and so it remains whether we are paid to do it or not.
Appelrouth, S. & Edles, L. (2011). Sociological theory in the contemporary era (2nd edition). Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press.
Davey, H. (2010). Faking positive emotions for our jobs: at what cost? Retrieved from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/helen-davey/positive-emotions-commoditization_b_773103.html.
Fromm, E. (1947). Man for himself: an inquiry into the psychology of ethics. New York: Rineheart.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.
Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: commercializiation of human feeling. Riverside: University of California Press.
 See Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 246.