Acting the part: emotional labour in the workplace

Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal explains how emotional labour at work is on the rise

(Photo: Wikimedia)
(Photo: Wikimedia)

Konstantin Stanislavsky was a Russian actor and director who revolutionised theatre at the start of 20th century. Stanislavsky’s system of actor training, which drew on the actors own emotional memory to create a character, ushered in the psychological based form of acting that remains dominant in Western drama schools today. Explaining his method he wrote:

Do you expect an actor to invent all sorts of new sensations, or even a new soul, for every part he plays? How many souls would he be obliged to house? […] You can borrow things of all sorts, but you cannot take feelings away from another person. My feelings are inalienably mine, and yours belong to you in the same way.

In her book ‘The Managed Heart,’ Arlie Russell Hochschild used the method of actor training developed by Stanislavsky as a framework through which to develop the theory of emotional labour. “Emotional labour” is the name that Hochschild used to define work which includes ‘the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display’. Her book studied the experience of American flight attendants in order to examine how the feelings and personalities of workers are controlled and manipulated by employers. Hochschild noted that in such work, ‘seeming to “love the job” becomes part of the job; and actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort.’

Just as actors must draw on their real, lived experience to perform a role, workers, Hochschild argued, were being increasingly expected to fuse their personal, private selves with their working lives. In 1998 Pine and Gilmore, authors of ‘The Experience Economy’, took this a step further, arguing that all work is now theatre, and wrote their book partly to make recommendations for how business owners could use this understanding to their advantage: ‘The grocery clerk should ask himself how he might scan the canned goods with flair, what dramatic voice and entertaining words he might use when asking for a credit card, and especially how to perform the personal touches that come with exchanging cash, credit card, or receipt.’

Employers recognise that acting is a crucial skill for the workforce. A recent academic study into the recruitment practices of call centres, quoted managers who explained that ‘personality is given priority in this recruitment process’ and said ‘Customer service. That’s not a skill. That’s in you.’ Recruitment practices in these workplaces do not sound dissimilar from the audition process of Stanislavsky-approach drama schools.

Emotional labour can make it harder for workers to disassociate their interests from those of the company, blurring the space between work and private life and ensuring that workers feel a sense of personal investment in their jobs which makes it harder to build militancy. Hochschild identified these dangers and suggested that the ‘deep acting’ undertaken in such work can lead to greater alienation for the worker. But, as many others have noted, the picture is more complex than this.

The performance’s we are required to carry out at work become a contested site of struggle themselves. Refusing to smile on cue can actually be a small form of resistance in many jobs. If ‘acting’ is becoming more and more a part of work under neoliberalism, then socialists should look at how those roles are performed, developed, and how they can be disrupted and undermined.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine 


  1. This is very intensified by the professional critics – the mystery shopper. Companies make public facing employees aware that any customer could be evaluating them and reporting back in a way that directly impacts their pay and promotion opportunities. However, from the inside, the mystery shopper is also performing a role – knowing that giving a 100% evaluation is often regarded as evidence they have insufficiently evaluated, and so looking for and magnifying the smallest flaws so that their report is believable.


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