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Service Workers Don’t Have to Pretend to Be Happy Anymore

The service economy has long demanded artificial good cheer in addition to labor — but that could be over

If, halfway through the grim survivalist frenzy that is 2020, you have a dollop of empathy left, you feel for retail and service workers. While the white-collar class has largely converted to remote work, the people who deliver your packages, ring up your groceries and help you find the right nails at the hardware store are out there in the scary world, day after day, vulnerable to a serious disease (and the yahoos who refuse to believe it exists). Underneath these new problems is the economic precarity that has always attended such jobs, a factor that is worsening yet. If you quit your gig as barista or Uber driver, what other work is available?

Strangely, however, this pervasive misery includes a silver lining: The expectation that a service worker remain smiling and chipper throughout a shift has all but vanished. Mandatory masks obviate the need for the labor of upbeat facial expressions, and muffled voices make for less chitchat. What’s more, a general malaise around COVID-19 means customers have little basis to expect that workers would bother with an overly pleasant affect — because really, no one anywhere is in a good mood anymore. Just as office employees can show up on Zoom conference calls in their sweatshirts and underpants, the person cutting your hair on the sidewalk is no longer obligated to launch into small talk. It’s way more purely transactional.

In a way, this acknowledges the long-standing reality of serving food or selling clothes to pay the bills: These people have always had to fake enthusiasm for the benefit of the business that employs them, and their low compensation has never accounted for that emotional burden. Someone in an office can loudly gripe about Mondays, have a surly afternoon due to a caffeine crash and check out during a dull conference call; the McDonald’s cashier, meanwhile, risks their livelihood whenever they let a manager notice a slip in their attitude.

And if you think consumers aren’t aware of the difference between the images of a fulfilled worker and a neutral one, here’s a doozy: Last month, the airline Garuda Indonesia announced they would look into plastic face shields to replace the usual masks for their in-flight crews, because passengers complained that they missed the attendants’ smiles. Even in a pandemic, we demand coddling from a staff — we insist on the illusion of being catered to by strangers who genuinely like us. 

We should, of course, be going in the opposite direction at a moment when essential workers are placing themselves in great danger for a steady paycheck — a complete end to the capitalist norm of forced friendliness in economic exchange. That’s not to suggest abolishing “please,” “thanks” or even “have a good one” — only to release workers from the additional duty of performing the niceness that papers over an ugly reality. If you’re making the choice to fly, or to eat outdoors at a restaurant, it cannot be on someone else to normalize that experience for you. It isn’t normal!

And, at root, this form of willful denial is why the United States’ management of the coronavirus outbreak has been so resoundingly piss-poor. We love to pretend that an obvious disaster is no big deal, and it is the artificial cheer of an exploited class that helps us do so. The time for this courtesy is over. Put your mask on and face the music: Nobody has to like you. Maybe, if we end this practice once and for all, we will gain a clear picture of where we are.