Affective labour

It seems that staff at sandwich store Pret a Manger are contractually obliged to be cheerful. They must project energy and enthusiasm and a range of other ‘Pret behaviours’ not only to their customers but to each other. If they do not, they stand to lose out financially: a mystery shopper visits each Pret store in the UK every week, and judges the performance of the staff. Any individuals judged to be extra-friendly and helpful is awarded a snap bonus of £50. (read the full account at the London Review of Books, here).

Pret,Victoria_PlaceIt is an odd reminder that what we sell to our employers and customers these days is not a product but a service, not a thing but an emotion. Our most transferable skill is a cheery smile; we are conduits for a mood.

This phenomenon has come to be known as affective labour. As teachers we are not immune – discussion of classroom practice often revolves around how to bottle that elusive ‘energy’. A teacher propels her students along the path to excellence by gathering them up in a whirlwind of  ‘energy’ and ‘group dynamics’ and who knows what else; not by demonstrating mere competence, experience, or expertise.

No doubt a bit of energy in a classroom is a good thing, just as a smile with your coffee is more pleasant than a scowl. But the fact that I do not scowl at my students when feeling a bit off is nothing more than the display of routine professionalism, one for which I take no credit. I’ve no doubt most of the staff at Pret a Manger feel, or once felt, something similar.


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