Why enforced ‘service with a smile’ should be banned

When you stumble into Starbucks for your morning coffee and are greeted by a super cheery barista inquiring about your day and your life in general, do you ever want to smack that smile off her face?

Well, pity the barista. In recent years the “service with a smile”mantra has risen to new heights; many workers in the service industry are expected to go beyond mere politeness, creating a “presence” or “sense of fun.” Consider the remarks of Clive Schee, CEO of the sandwich chain Pret A Manger:

“The first thing I look at,” he says, “is whether staff are touching each other — are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? Look, she’s just touched her colleague — squeezed her arm. If I see hands going up in the air, that’s a good sign. I can almost predict sales on body language alone.”

As a customer, you may find this relentless cheer uplifting or annoying (I err on the latter; please stop asking me about my day and just make my coffee). In the service industry, this “emotional labor,” to use the academic parlance, is typically a job requirement that’s enforced by management. Yet a large body of research suggests that emotional labor comes at a cost and one that’s primarily paid by the employee. I can’t speak to sales at Pret A Manger, but research also finds little evidence that the practice increases store profits.

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