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Emotional labour is not selling emotion. It's about having fun at the same time.

Updated on July 4, 2015

‘Emotional labour’ was firsly coined by Hochschild (2012), who defined it as the management and alteration of one’s outward behaviour to display socially desired emotions during work encounters. Most literature about emotional labour focus on the negative consequences of emotional labour. Those work mentioned about burnout and emotive dissonance (Hochschild 2012), which finally lead to job dissatisfaction (Morris & Feldman 1997). However, as I personally had a real ‘emotional labour’ experience as a waiter at a Pho restaurant, I disagree. Emotional labour can be satisfying. All sources of dissatisfaction do not come from the job itself, but rather improper recruitment or training or just because it is not pure emotional labour at all.

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A waitress taking order
A waitress taking order | Source
Two people talking
Two people talking | Source

1. Human interaction makes emotional labour more satisfying

Firstly, emotional labour involves human interaction, which can be less boring and more satisfying. Unlike factory workers, especially those working in Taylorism environment, who can get very bored and discouraged with repetitive jobs, emotional workers work in an interactive environment, where each customer encounter is a different experience. Working as a waiter, I have to deal with various types of customers. Some customers just need their own privacy and some need a little more care. There was a regular old lady customer, who was very friendly and liked to tell us everything about her daughters and sons. Every waiter who served her would be told the same story of how successful her sons became and how nice the husbands that her daughers married to. At the end of her story, she sadly said that at home there was only herself being alone all day. All waiters serving her truly felt sorry when listening to her. Such experience is unforgettable to me.

According to Shuler and Sypher (2000, p.66), human interaction in emotional labour can be a ‘comic relief’. This is found in a study on 911 call dispatchers about how they found their interaction with customers humorous and interesting (Shuler & Sypher 2000). My waiter job also provided me with the same experience. One story was about a customer who complained that she was not eating beef in her Pho, but goat. As if she was an expert, she tried to describe the difference in taste, smell and appearance. Then, she started to be angry at us and refused to pay, saying that we were tricking her. It was silly because goat meat costs more than beef and why should a restaurant cheat customers by using something more expensive? After our explanation, she argued that she knew very well about the price and blamed us for cheating her again. It was not until when other customers also joined the argument to support us that the woman reluctantly paid and left, still mumbling: “Those people don’t know anything about beef and goat.” Such story was always the source of joy for both manager and staff.

Surface acting in emotional labour
Surface acting in emotional labour

Contrary to my experience above, some literatures mentioned that human interaction at emotional work can be harmful. Especially with those who have to pretend their emotions- or surface acting, they would experience emotive dissonance- the unease feeling when expressed emotions are not consistent with felt emotions (Hoschild 2012). This would lead to negative consequences such as low self-efficacy (Seeman 1991), depression and alienation from work (Ashforth & Humphrey 1993). However, these findings point out the consequences from improper recruitment and training rather than consequences from emotional work. Surface acting comes from people who need to hide their genuine emotions because their character does not fit the job. Obviously, in all work fields, if one does not fit the job, how can he/she be satisfied with it? With proper recruitment and training, emotional workers will not need to pretend their feelings and will find human interaction interesting. At the restaurant I worked at, my manager was very difficult with selecting the right staff. Therefore, those who could stay long at the position- including I, were the ones who truly fit the job. Probably because we just behaved the way we already were- being nice and friendly to people without trying to pretend to be so.

2. Intrinsic motivation makes emotional labour joyful

Secondly, emotional labour realizes the importance of instrinsic motivation. According to Ryan and Deci (2000), intrinsic drivers- motivation that comes from inside an individual, such as achievement or recognition are much more important than extrinsic drivers- motivators that come from outside an individual, such as promotion or money. Such intrisic motivation is often found in emotional workers, who enjoy what they are doing. When I was a waiter, I always tried to make customers feel the best service. The reason I wanted to do that not entirely due to my manager’s always checking around, but also because I felt something in return when I was nice to people. As the customers ordered a meal, I tried to serve them as soon as possible. And probably due to my enthusiastic and happy mood while serving, I usually received a satisfied smile and thank you from customers. From my experience, being able to bring satisfaction and happiness to people was not only a must-do job, but also a source of satisfaction and motivation for service workers.

What motivates us?

Even though intrinsic motivation cannot always be found within individuals, it can be inspired. Due to the nature of emotional work which requires not only employee-customer interaction but also between employees, they are easily motivated in an emotional work environment. As a waiter, I got inspired by both my manager and staff working here. My manager often interacted with customers and he was very good with telling jokes and creating joy for them. This really inspired us since he showed that satisfying customers was not only the emotional workers’ job, but also his. In addition, we felt the job was not about “selling” our emotion, but satisfying customers and having fun at the same time.

However, not all emotional jobs are the same. Some jobs create demotivating environment. For example, employees working in call centers and McDonald’s are reported to be demotivated because of close supervision and low interaction with managers and other employees (Dawson 2002; Nawaz 2011). In my opinion, these jobs are not “pure” emotional jobs, but a mix with Taylorism- which was originally applied to factory workers. In these jobs, the main objective is to improve the process efficiency rather than a focus on customer satisfaction, leading to staff completing the process similar to a factory worker. Therefore, the argument that emotional labour is motivating is only valid without the presence of Taylorism.

3. Autonomy and discretion provides satisfaction

The final reason for satisfaction at emotional labour is the autonomy- independence and discretion that emotional jobs provide. Autonomy at work is one of the main motivators for job satisfaction (Van den Broeck et al. 2008), and this factor is found in emotional labour (Tolich 1993). In Tolich’s study (1993, p.371) on supermarket clerks, he found that the autonomy of supermarket clerks lies ‘within the “my clerk” and “my customer” relationship’. Similarly, it was what I experienced in my job. I liked to interact with my customers and involved them in a more personal talk than just a customer-waiter conversation. This autonomy allowed me to create relationships with customers on the personal level, motivating me at work. For example, there was a regular old gentleman who only called me for serving and got upset when I was not around. He complained that only me could remember to remind the chef of putting extra spring onion in his Pho and not too much ice in his tea.

On the other hand, some may argue that emotional work is repetitive and monotonous. It is correct that the process is repeated, but the customer interaction experience can never be the same. Or if it is the same, it is due to the employees and improper training. Tolich (1993) recorded a clerk who said that those finding the job boring were the ones who only saw the keyboard and the groceries coming; the experienced ones would also talk to customers, show care to them and be satisfied with that. Service workers must know a smile and hello can be done in various ways- a simple thing that many fail to understand. For example, “How is the traffic, sir?” or “Good morning, ma’am! What a nice dress you’ve got!” is also a greeting, which sounds much less robotic and boring than a plain hello. Being able to do this would allow demotivated service workers to look at emotional labour from a more positive and autonomous perspective.

Emotional labour has a high level of job autonomy
Emotional labour has a high level of job autonomy | Source


To sum up, emotional work does not always result in dissatisfied employees as most literature describe. This argument is helpful to organization by suggesting there should be more concern on emotional labour recruitment, training and management approach. The points also benefit employees for showing them the importance of their attitude towards customers and emotional jobs. If employees are able to look on the bright side, they will find the interactive service environment interesting and satisfying. Emotional labour is not only about “selling” emotion, but about making customers happy and having fun at the same time.

Reference list

  • Ashforth, BE & Humphrey, RH 1993, ‘Emotional labor in service roles: The influence of identity’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 18, pp. 88-115.
  • Dawson, ASF 2002, ‘Call centre employment- a qualitative study’, PhD thesis, University of Stirling, Scotland, viewed 1 January 2012, <>.
  • Hochschild, AR 2012, The managed heart: Commercialization of human feelings, 3rd edn, University of California press, Berkeley.
  • Morris, J & Feldman, D 1997, ‘Managing emotions in the workplace’, Journal of Managerial Issues, vol. 9, pp. 257-274.
  • Nawaz, ASMS 2011, ‘Employee motivation: A study on some selected McDonalds in the UK African’, Journal of Business Management, vol. 5, issue 14, pp. 5541-5550.
  • Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2000, ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New
  • Seeman, M 1991, ‘Alienation and anomie’, rev. J Robison, Shaver &Wrightsman, Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes, pp. 291-295.
  • Shuler, S & Sypher, BD 2000, ‘Seeking emotional labor: When managing the heart
  • Tolich, MB 1993, ‘Alienation and liberating emotions at work’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol 22, pp. 361-381.
  • Van den Broeck, A, Vansteenkiste, M, De Witte, H, Lens, W 2008, “Explaining the relationship between job characteristics, burnout and engagement: the role of basic psychological need satisfaction”, Work and Stress, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 277-294.


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      Juilliard hui 2 years ago

      Good view point. Optimism rules