Jul 5, 2011

Labor of Civility

I could remind you of  what Benjamin Franklin 
wrote about being polite, the quote I posted back in “The Problem with Concepts II”, but I think you get the point by now*.   What is polite in one culture is uncivil in another and vice versa,but no one remembers that or at least behaves as if they do.  In international relations,  someone has to be the most right.

I always instruct visitors to my own town in France to greet a storekeeper or salesperson with a hearty bonjour and to leave with a deferent au revoir as they depart.  But this knowledge -- that we always start with a bonjour and end with an au revoir even if we are scowling (because we are in a bad mood and want to be “authentic” about it) -- doesn’t keep me from getting into trouble myself.  For me, the most polite thing to say as I approach someone for help is not hello, but rather excuse me.  When I start a conversation with excuse me though,  salespeople have lately confronted me with an in-my-face BONJOUR in order to point out my lapse.  I just do not seem to get it.  Saying, Bonjour, s’il vous plaît ..? does not come out smoothly, so I have taken to saying, S’il vous plaît, bonjour before anyone can complain. But I actually think that this in-your-face bonjour thing is something recent, that is part of a new management training or sales training.  But of course, if it is supposed to be effective because it is polite, so far the average execution of this greeting does not have that effect. 

Let’s face it, telling people to do something they do not want to do is ineffective.  We all know this about smiles, right?  Smiles that are pasted on an otherwise seething or terribly bored person are not pleasant signals, at least not when compared to a neutral expression.  It turns out, however, that a pasted on smile is not worse then a scowl, at least in the West.  Many pasted on smiles can work to signal a “I am not going to scowl at you” message which is frankly more appealing than an “I am scowling at you” message.  I know we are back to the “is it good – or merely vapid and stupid – to be positive?" question, and yes we are.  Most things boil down to that when it comes to international relations.

In preparing for a course I am going to teach in the fall, I have learned a lot of things about positive emotions.  My friend Evie is helping me with this, because she studies Positive Psychology, a newish label that, in itself elicits some cliché and scorn by those who deeply prefer irony, sarcasm, criticism and general bitchiness.  For instance, Evie brought to my attention a meta-analysis of over 200 empirical studies on the relationship between being happy and a number of associated outcomes, by Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener (2005).  Lyubomirsky and colleague’s analyses support the contention that the following things are more likely to be caused by (rather than only the consequence of) happiness: 

Having more energy, being more productive, earning more money, being better liked, being more generous, being more creative on some types of tasks, being better leaders and listeners and negotiators…

AND happier people get sick less often and indeed live longer.

The live longer thing is a very cool result.  One study that reported this relationship, in 2001, was conducted on nuns.  When nuns enter a convent they actually write some sort of autobiographical-motivational statement.  The authors of the research took those statements, which had been written many years ago now, and coded them for reflections of level of personal happiness.  Then they related the derived happiness score to the length of the nuns' lives (many had passed away).  The score for happiness predicted longevity very well, and it explained even more of the variance than other health risks that we think of as very important, such as cigarette smoking, which still explained longevity of course. 

These days people are more impressed by neuro-imaging and neuroendocrine data, so let me give you some:  

Increasing positive emotions in people also has the effect of lowering levels of stress related hormones, increasing levels of growth-related and bonding hormones, enhancing the immune system, and increasing neurochemicals that make you feel good such as dopamine and opioids.

Although this is impressive, many people would say that this is all very nice, but if you are not happy, you just ain’t and it isn’t good to pretend that you are.  One reason to not pretend, according to my Polish colleague, Piotr S. is that it is inauthentic.  According to Piotr, the Poles worry about authenticity a lot, and if you try to be happy or nice or smile when you are not personally feeling good, this is a very inauthentic act. Psychologists who are concerned about the possibility that expressions of (forced) happiness are manipulative point to the ostensible problem of emotion labor.  Emotion labor is the act of putting forth a particular image, especially one of pleasantness, in organizational settings.  Some data, which are trotted out pretty often, show that emotional labor is so stressful that it can have negative mental and physical health outcomes. 

The manager or director who tells people to express happiness even when they are not feeling happy isn’t doing his or her job right, though.  What we know is that people have to actually come up with a way to feel genuinely pleasant in order to be effective.  Deep acting works much better because you convince yourself you are happy and in so doing you convince other people.  Research in the psychology of emotion shows that the best way to convince yourself is not to fake it, but to reassess the entire situation so that the right emotion is a natural outcome.  In the business of emotion research, this is called reappraisal.  If you decide that it is important to you to make people feel welcome then you might smile even on the day that your boy friend breaks up with you or your cat goes missing.  It can be real.

The whole emotion-labor-leads-to-bad-outcomes story is starting to break down anyway.  I have heard about new findings from a study conducted in Switzerland that suggest that the research that showed that emotion labor is bad for you actually did not take into account the underlying negative emotion that was being worked on and masked in the first place.  The results of that large study suggest that the negative mental and physical health outcomes are mostly explained by the underlying negative emotions.  When you get rid of those, the adverse effects of emotion labor is significantly diminished.  

 Makes you think.

*In case you missed it, he said “Perhaps, if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude, as to be without any Rules of Politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some Remains of Rudeness.”

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