Emotion Work

I’m back in Bern after thirty days in the US. With my nephew getting married in Napa Valley, my husband and I decided to drive from Vancouver, BC, where I did my last two years of high school, to Calistoga, CA, via Washington, Oregon, and the northern Californian coast. It was a great trip that ended with a beautiful, joyous wedding.

I’ve come back sharply aware of the many differences between Americans and Swiss, the two groups of people I share citizenship with. One contrast is how much more space Americans take up. Their houses and cars and grocery carts are bigger, their streets are wider, their parking places are vast (at least outside the big cities). Their bodies are larger, and their voices are louder. They play music in restaurants, stores, and elevators and, in general, sound off with gusto. In Switzerland, I have a loud speaking voice; in the US, my voice disappears.

One reason that Americans use more space because they have more space, much more than the Swiss do. Seventy percent of Switzerland is made up of mountains (the Alps and the Jura), and between these two ranges lies the Mittelland. This remaining thirty percent of the country is where over two-thirds of its 8’770’283 people live. In other words, the Swiss are crowded!  If we were as expansive—in every sense of the word—as Americans are, we would drive each other crazy. Instead, we are highly conscious of each other’s physical and mental space. Although there are always exceptions, as a group we are quiet in public and even at home, since we are uncomfortable about disturbing our neighbors. (Note that only 25% of all Swiss own a house; the majority live in rented apartments.)

The crowded Swiss taking the train to work in Zürich! (photo by Keystone)

Something else I observed on my recent visit to the States has to do with boundaries as well, but in another sense, and it’s a difference I’ve been aware of since I first moved to Switzerland over thirty-four years ago and asked my Swiss husband why “no one here smiles at me.” The extraordinary friendliness of Americans is a phenomenon that I took for granted when I lived with them and that now strikes me, as it strikes many Europeans, as one of the nicest things about visiting the US.

But since I’m by training a sociologist, I can’t just leave it at that. (Not to mention that after all my years in Switzerland, I now know that the Swiss are friendly, too.) So I’ll point out some differences between the two countries’ definitions of good manners, starting by comparing . . . bus drivers! In Swiss cities, bus and tram drivers sit enclosed by glass, and there is a sign on the compartment telling passengers not to talk to them. Many American bus drivers may long for such privacy, but, instead, they are expected to interact with passengers all day long, including while they are driving, especially if they happen to have someone chatty sitting in the front seat.

In other words, when Swiss men and women are on the job, they are not trying to be likeable. A Swiss bus driver is not your friend, nor is he or she expected to act like it. If a Swiss is your tax advisor, food server, doctor, plumber, or florist, their role is to greet you courteously and apply their skills to your needs in a competent way, whether it’s fixing your sink or listening to your lungs. They will probably smile a couple of times in the course of their interaction with you, but they won’t ask you personal questions, chat about the weather, or try to engage you in a conversation unrelated to their task.  Unless, of course, you tell them that you are buying flowers for your sister’s birthday or that you just got back from a holiday in Majorca. Then they are likely to abandon their professional role to comment briefly on birthdays or holidays. But they won’t get into an extended exchange with you—it would be considered unprofessional, inappropriate, and sometimes even rude.

In addition, the Swiss never address a client by their first name (unless, of course, the two of them are already acquaintances.) Compare this to the first-name badges that so many Americans wear on their jobs, inviting you to cozy up and chat with them. 

In 1983, an American sociologist named Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, which forever changed the way I thought about friendliness on the job. Using flight attendants as its main focus, Hochschild’s book shows how employers expect workers—especially women—to manipulate their emotions and “pretend” to be cheerful, warmhearted, motherly, and soothing, in addition to performing the occupational tasks they are officially paid for. The book asks if bosses should have the right to demand what Hochschild calls “emotional labor” from the people they employ.

I love how friendly and talkative most Americans are under all kinds of circumstances. But today that sometimes-forced friendliness is not the norm for me, as it used to be when I lived in the US. After my years in Switzerland, I no longer expect wide smiles and animated conversation from strangers, especially not from a person I’m paying to do me a service.

I think many Americans feel that friendliness to strangers, including their clients, is one of the ways they add fun to their workday—something they do voluntarily and not because it is expected of them. If that is the case, then I accept their smiles gratefully. But I don’t want anyone to have to perform “emotion work” for me. Competence and courtesy are enough.

7 thoughts on “Emotion Work

  1. INTERESTING! And timely – I’m having terrible trouble with “re-entry” to NY after a lovely year living in Maine. The people are vastly different in the two places, and here I feel abraded, tense, and crowed.

    In Maine, people are courteous, easy-going, friendly, helpful, and wholly available in public spaces – available to chat, to exchange smiles, to answer questions, etc. It’s quite common for a stranger to strike up a conversation in a store, or at the gas pump. People offer to help you when you are carrying heavy objects. People really “see” each other there, and respond accordingly.

    Down here, where we are SO much more crowded, bumping up against each other constantly, people are guarded, aloof, and trained not to look at each other. They usually do not even acknowledge or respond to small niceties It’s not that they are unfriendly – they are just so invested in maintaining their invisible walls that they can’t switch gears quickly enough to say thanks for a door held open, or wave when someone lets them into traffic. As a lifelong New Yorker, I must say I am shocked at how appalling I am finding it, after only a year away.

    You raise interesting issues, though, about the accepted norms in work situations. Interesting to learn a bit about the Swiss outlook!


    1. Hello, Ellen and thanks for adding a whole other dimension to the picture, which is rural/urban. I know exactly what you mean about New Yorkers and other huge-city dwellers, and I’m glad you’ve made the distinction between actual unfriendliness and self-protection. You’re raising the interesting sociological issue of how people define the boundaries of their community and the folks who belong in it. Since the entire state of Maine has only 1.4 million people, Mainers may think of everyone in their state as in some way part of their community. New York City has almost nine million people (more than all of Switzerland); I wonder if New Yorkers consider the people who live on their block and work on the same floor of their skyscraper to be in their community? Or do they shrink it down even further?


  2. Living in a Swiss village, you’ll usually get a “Gruezi” or “Bonjour” if you meet people walking out and about. Move to a city and it can quickly feel quite lonely because of the famous Swiss “reserve”. I recently read an article about the positive effect of “weak ties” on mental health; the smile of recognition from your regular bus driver, mini-interactions as you go about your day with the people you come into contact with, etc, which foster a sense of belonging to a place and increase a feeling of well-being.

    I know the American cashier doesn’t really care if I have a nice day, but it puts a little spring in my step, as does the Spanish bus driver who patiently listens to my route woes and then makes sure I get off at the right stop. Competence and courtesy are great, and when it comes with a side of friendliness, even better.


  3. Don’t worry. I love demonstrative people and (you know me) I’m a chatty type, even with the Swiss. It’s just that, after 34 years, I don’t get upset when a Swiss acts like a Swiss instead of an American. So glad you found the post interesting!


  4. Interesting, very interesting.
    But let me share what I learned when I moved from Germany to Switzerland (all of 300 kms distance).
    I was used to the German way (or maybe I should say the way of my local German area) of making a phone call, which was: State your name and purpose and drive right into what you wanted. That was especially true for business calls: “Hello, Ms. M. here . You wanted me to call you back about our offer” was a perfectly acceptable way of starting a call. And if you called a friend’s house then: “Hello Mr X, how are you today. Is Friend Y at home” would be equally normal.
    Then I moved to Switzerland and was told by well meaning colleagues that I was unfriendly, cold, not polite enough. Which seemed strange to people, because I was actually quite chatty in person. I then asked my boyfriend about this and he confirmed that his mother thought ne quite ill mannered because I never chatted with her on the phone.
    So I wrote myself a post-it note: “three minutes smalltalk first” and lo and behold, phone calls worked a lot better.
    I really dread to think what a move to the US would have meant 😉


    1. This is such a great story, Katja. It just goes to show that how that we perceive cultures is relative. I bet Americans seem quite cold and over-businesslike to, say, Brazilians!


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