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I’m sure you can relate to being served by a waiter, hotel receptionist or shop assistant who made it obvious that they don’t care about your request one bit. Their facial expressions and body language clearly show that they’re not enjoying being at work let alone serving you. You’re the customer, right, and you demand professional service – it’s what you’re paying for isn’t it? Surely a smile is the minimum you can expect?

“Service with a smile” is the bare minimum required in the service industry. However, it often appears to be the most advanced and complex skill to master. Arlie Russell Hochschild a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley came up with the concept of emotional labour which is what smiling is – an act of emotional labour. It’s common knowledge that smiling is an infectious gesture. Share a genuine smile with someone else, perhaps even a total stranger, and there will be a high probability of having the smile happily returned. So, what makes smiling or acting friendly and polite a hazard to an employee? The answers are threefold:

  1. The repetitive nature of expressing pleasant emotions coupled with a demanding workload make it difficult for some employees to be sincere. Treating every customer with a friendly genuine smile can feel routine and mundane. The emphasis is on a sincere smile, not a poorly faked smile.
  2. Employees might have to express emotions like empathy, sadness or concern towards others who are feeling the emotion for the first time. However, the employee feels the emotion every day and therefore becomes slightly immune. Think about a nurse who has to continually empathise with her patients – she is going to become emotionally “inoculated”. This is called “surface acting” where the nurse would act the emotion without actually feeling it.
  3. A third factor is that the person tries to physically experience the emotion they need to display by going all out. The intent is to inwardly feel the emotion knowing that it will filter through to the outside. This means that he/she would have to visualise the feeling and then let it transition to their behaviour. This is referred to as deep acting and I think you understand why.

The long-term challenge is that the emotional “acting” regardless of how well it is intended creates feelings of inauthenticity; similar to being a fraudster. Also, the person experiences emotional dissonance or inner conflict knowing that they should smile but are unable to. Stress, burnout and negative psychological consequences are guaranteed.

A smile is beautiful but only if it comes genuinely from the heart. As consumers and leaders let’s become aware that a simple natural act such as a smile can be an act of labour for others. Let’s assist our employees to remain genuine and true to themselves when serving customers.


Hochschild, A.R. (1983). The Managed Head: Commercialization of Human Feelings. Berkley, CA: University of California Press