Being polite at work when you don’t feel like it is similar to any situation in life that requires you to make the effort to mask your true feelings. That could be feigning gratitude for that revolting meal your partner just spent hours making for you, or putting on a brave smile for the birthday socks from your aunt that you really didn’t want.
As you say, it’s exhausting, especially if your job means you have to do it all day long. In a work context, psychologists call it ‘emotional labour’, which involves either ‘surface acting’ – concealing your true feelings – or ‘deep acting’.
The latter means altering your actual underlying feelings, which can be achieved by various means, such as reappraising the scenario. For example, by taking the perspective of an irate customer and so genuinely sympathising with their situation.
Due to the effort and emotional regulation involved, both forms of emotional labour can be tiring. But there’s some evidence that the deep acting version is better for the employee and customers – probably because it’s more convincing and it creates a virtuous feedback loop in which the employee is rewarded by their customer’s satisfaction, such as a smile or a tip.
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Asked by: Ben Simpson, Leicester
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.