I also wrote about emotional labor as women’s work for In These Times—bonus insights into my own years waiting tables.
No, that waitress isn’t flirting with you.
Neither is the barista at your local Starbucks, nor the counter server at the Pret A Manger near your office, and you might be surprised to learn that the stripper at your local club doesn’t have a deep fondness for you, either.
Pretending to love one’s work, to be overjoyed by the ability to serve you coffee or pizza or dance for your tips, is an integral part of the job for service workers. “Service with a smile” is expected from anyone who deals with customers, and as Josh Eidelson and Timothy Noah pointed out last week at The Nation and The New Republic respectively, sometimes low-wage service employers require much more.
What Noah, Eidelson and Resnikoff mostly overlook is that this is deeply gendered labor, and its requirements are based on behavior that is expected of women beyond the workplace.
Feminist sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild is credited in all three pieces with coining the term “emotional labor.” Hochschild has spent decades writing of the role such labor plays in the lives of workers, especially women workers. She co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich the book Global Woman, which looked at the role of women, many of them migrant women, in the “new economy,” exploring the ways in which women’s supposed skill at emotional labor leads to their exploitation as low-paid care and service workers.
Much of this work has been women’s work for decades, in some cases for hundreds of years. Noah comments that the increasing levels of emotional or affective labor involved in the American workplace is harder for men, but let’s not forget that even in service workplaces, men make more than women. Women are 60 percent of the fast-food workforce and 73 percent of the tipped workforce—but women in restaurant work make 83 cents to a man’s dollar.