In the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie” (1963), Dick Van Dyke sings to a dour Janet Leigh to simply put on a happy face. “Wipe off that ‘full of doubt’ look, / Slap on a happy grin! / And spread sunshine all over the place[…].” This classic—if admittedly hokey—ditty it seems has become the mantra of our “service with a smile” corporate culture. And it may actually be good advice.
New research suggests that putting on a happy face reduces fatigue at work and improves our relationships, but only if we employ “deep acting” strategies over “surface acting” ones to regulate those emotions.
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Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, “emotional labor” has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.
First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, “The Managed Heart,” emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild’s go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being “nicer than natural” to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild’s counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be “nastier than natural.”
Such personas may serve an organization’s mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.
Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to regulate those emotions and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life’s benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid’s fault he got sick).
Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.
As we’ll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.
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Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you’re in the bouncing business, a scowl. But Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.
“What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort,” Gabriel said in a press release.
Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as “I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers” or “I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers.” Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, “I feel emotionally drained at work.” Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.
The results, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, revealed four different emotional strategies. “Deep actors” engaged in high levels of deep acting; “low actors” leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, “non-actors” engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while “regulators” switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.
The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals.
As Gabriel told PsyPost in an interview: “So, it’s a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions.”
Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn’t enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.
“I think the ‘fake it until you make it’ idea suggests a survival tactic at work,” Gabriel noted. “Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work.
“It all boils down to, ‘Let’s be nice to each other.’ Not only will people feel better, but people’s performance and social relationships can also improve.”
But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.
There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? One study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience measured hemoglobin density in participants’ brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).
With that said, Gabriel’s studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. A 2011 meta-analysis found that “discordant emotional labor states” (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. Another meta-analysis found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.
So, although there’s still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke’s advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will only help if we can feel it.