Now hiring smiling faces (and who cares about your insides)

This morning I drove past a Burger King that was announcing via outside signage: “Now hiring smiling faces!” My usual response to seeing signs like this is to conjure up a mildly disturbing mental image of disembodied grinning visages rolling (how else would a disembodied face travel?) into Burger King and filling out job applications with…I don’t know what. With a pen in their mouths? How does a disembodied smiling face do anything, really?

But this morning, my customary weird mental picture faded as some more troubling thoughts emerged. What does it mean to advertise that you’re hiring “smiling faces”? I think it mostly means that you don’t really give a shit about what’s on the inside of a person as long as they are presenting a picture of friendliness and happiness on the outside. I’ve been on the receiving end of some unpleasant customer service interactions in which the worker had something less than a smiling face, and it certainly doesn’t make that encounter very fun, but at the same time, I am uncomfortable with this idea of emotional labor, that employers can demand that you feel a certain way—or at least display a certain feeling—as a part of doing your job. The space between the display of feeling and the actual feeling is often cavernous and disorienting and feels pretty terrible.

When I was on sabbatical last year, the ideas I originally wanted to explore ended up meandering into—guess what?—burnout. I started reading everything I could find about burnout, especially as it related to instruction librarians, and the earliest article (Becker, 1993) I could find on the topic is also the one that offended me the most. Becker basically says the solution to burnout is maybe we should be less enthusiastic and aspirational about our work. No, really, here’s what she says: “Unfortunately, emotions and attitudes (such as this ‘enthusiasm’) are very susceptible to the causes of burnout listed above. The individual strategy of lowering unrealistic goals is seldom mentioned” (p. 355). Becker also notes:

At the professional level, to relieve the heavy burden of guilt and feelings of failure caused by the setting of overly idealistic goals, philosophies of bibliographic instruction should be reexamined and restated in light of typical real-life situations, without sacrificing vision or discouraging exploration. Bibliographic instruction librarians presenting pragmatic sessions on practical library research skills should not be reviled or maligned in the library literature (p. 355).

This remarkably pessimistic view is kind of depressing to me, and it seems like it would be more conducive to burnout than being disappointed that my high expectations weren’t met, or if my enthusiasm were disillusioned. Becker’s view also seems to acknowledge that there is a difference between how we feel and how we’re expected to publicly enact our feelings, and that this difference is just something we should accept as normal, something we should live with and try to regulate and maybe even stifle. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this strikes me as an unusually damaging and dehumanizing prescription for the problem of burnout.

This idea of emotional labor is something I’ve talked about here before. Hochschild (1983) studied flight attendants, who certainly are required to engage in emotional labor to a significant degree, and she notes that one of them reported to her that being required to display positive feelings all the time made it hard for her to recognize and understand her real actual feelings. This is, as the kids say these days, relevant to my interests.

Here’s where these two things are getting entangled for me: The confusing space between how I actually feel and how I’m supposed to visibly feel is, to me, a factor in burnout. If I’m expected to behave as though I’m always on, always ready to be at service, always poised to answer your question or teach you how do to a thing, but I don’t feel appreciated or acknowledged or valued as a person who has expertise and who can do all of those things, then I feel like my feelings don’t really matter either, which is ultimately dehumanizing. Furthermore, Becker’s argument that librarians should somehow be less enthusiastic and idealistic about teaching as a way of combating burnout also feels really invalidating and dehumanizing to me as well, which is the opposite of what I think she claims it will do.

Encountering Becker’s article while I was beginning to unravel this whole burnout thing last year was kind of disheartening. My reading of it almost made me feel like burnout was my own fault. It was my own fault for having idealistic and enthusiastic visions of the exciting potential of library instruction and what it can do for the students I teach. It was my own fault for idealistically and enthusiastically linking my politics to my teaching practice in an effort disrupt the damaging power relations that govern higher education, and, ultimately, the world at large. I obviously needed to lower my expectations and focus on “real-life situations,” right?

But what is more “real-life” than to acknowledge, make visible, and provide resources to explore racism (Pagowsky & Wallace, 2015) or the Iraq war or the Occupy movement (Ryan & Sloniowski, 2013). How is it not “real-life” to teach students about the imperfect structures and methods libraries use to organize information and make it accessible and knowable (Drabinski, 2013)? Or what exactly is not “real-life” than to encourage critical examination of Wikipedia as a way of talking about how privilege and power dictate who gets to say what and about whom (Jacobs, 2010)? These are actual real things in the world, and to ignore these actual real things and just stick to “pragmatic research skills” is a missed opportunity and does our students a disservice and makes me feel like I’m supposed to be some feeling-less teaching robot.

If this makes me idealistic, then fine, I’m idealistic. And to ask or imply that I should do otherwise as a way of combating burnout? This is what I would call—wait for it—“unrealistic.” An approach to teaching and reference that sheds light on how information is produced and disseminated and tries to empower students to transform the power structures that obscure and erase the marginalized—this is one way I am able to shorten the distance between “now hiring smiling faces” and my real actual feelings. And I really don’t know any other way of doing this work and not wanting to crawl in a hole and disappear.


P. S. Citation matters.

Becker, K. (1993). The characteristics of bibliographic instruction in relation to the causes and symptoms of burnout. RQ, 32(3), 346-358.

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction. Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, H. L. M. (2010). Posing the Wikipedia “problem”: Information literacy and the praxis of problem-posing in library instruction. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A. Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 179-197). Duluth: Library Juice Press.

Pagowsky, N., & Wallace, N. (2015). Black lives matter! Shedding library neutrality rhetoric for social justice. College and Research Libraries News, 76(4), 196.

Ryan, P. & Sloniowski, L. (2013). The public academic library: Friction in the Teflon funnel. In L. Gregory & S. Higgins (Eds.), Information literacy and social justice: Radical Professional Praxis (pp. 275-296). Sacramento: Library Juice Press.


5 thoughts on “Now hiring smiling faces (and who cares about your insides)

  1. The Becker quote seems to be saying, “The problem is you care too much.” I’ve had discussions with R about this. There is (or should be) a balance between being passionate about your work and letting it overtake you, but enthusiasm should not be a risk factor for burnout!

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