February 7 2013
Service Without a Smile
Pret A Manger—a London-based chain that has spread over the past decade to the East Coast and Chicago—is at the cutting edge of what the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotional labor.” Emotional because the worker doesn’t create or even necessarily sell a product or service so much as make the customer experience a positive feeling. …
Fast-food service is not one of the caring professions. The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have “presence” and “create a sense of fun”? Why can’t he or she be doing it “just for the money”? I don’t expect the swiping of my credit card to be anybody’s vocation. This is, after all, the economy’s bottommost rung.
Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does.
I know Tim and I can vouch that he is a very nice guy. But that line about “the economy’s bottommost rung” takes my breath away. Really, it does. Does Tim really think that the well-groomed folks at Pret A Manger are as low as you can go? And, if they were, so what? Would that absolve them of the obligation to be cordial to the customers whose patronage, by the way, pays their salaries?
Bunch, who highlighted the bottommost rung line, comments in a blog post headlined "Service with a Snarl:"
What Noah seems most perturbed by is not that customer service is on the upswing. Rather, he wants the predatory bourgeois class to see those who toil on the economy’s “bottommost rung” in their natural state: sorrow-filled and snarling, cursing their lowly lot in life. He might not necessarily want the worker to feel bad—but he certainly wants the customer to feel bad for the worker.
For their part, Pret’s employees don’t seem to mind the management-mandated grins: the New York Times reports that turnover is less than 60 percent, annually, well below the industry standard of 300 to 400 percent.
I’m afraid Noah’s article betrays an attitude towards good, honest work that is all too common among the nation’s intellectual elite. They look down on people who don’t do elite-approved jobs, even though these jobs are honorable.