How Do You Smile When You Don't Feel Happy?

It's not easy to hide your feelings.

My friend Jenny Dempsey recently wrote a personal and poignant post about this on her blog. Her beloved dog, Miso, had recently died and she was finding it difficult to hide her grief at work. 

That's exactly what her job requires her to do.

Jenny is a customer care manager at Her legendarily warm and bubbly customer service inspires songs from customers. That's what makes her so good at her job, where displaying warmth and friendliness towards customers is expected.

Suddenly, this was very difficult.

What Jenny found herself doing is what millions of customer service professionals do at some level each day. It's called surface acting and it's an epidemic. It causes poor customer service, decreased job satisfaction, and burnout.

Here's what you need to know and what you can do about it.

Key Terms: Surface Acting and Emotional Labor

Let's start with a couple of definitions.

Surface acting is a technique where you display an emotion that you don't actually feel. For example, here are some emotional displays typically required of customer service employees:

  • Smiling

  • Warm tone of voice

  • Positive and open body language

Those are all easy when you actually feel happy. Surface acting is when you don't feel happy but force yourself to smile anyway. This gets increasingly harder the bigger the gap between how you feel and the emotions you put on display.

The effort required to engage in surface acting is called emotional labor. The term emotional labor was first coined by Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart. Like any type of effort, exerting too much can be exhausting.


What Drives Emotional Labor?

A neighbor recently complained to me about poor customer service he experienced while dining with his niece in a restaurant. His server wasn't friendly and he and his niece came to the conclusion that the server should be fired.

My neighbor can be a bit surly, so I can only imagine what a gem he must have been as a restaurant guest. It's an incredible challenge to serve someone with a smile who regarded you with such disdain that they would callously suggest you should lose your job.

Unsympathetic, demanding customers are a big drain on emotional labor, especially when people like this test our natural fight or flight instinct. I have the luxury of politely ending the conversation with my neighbor when he gets too grumpy. A restaurant server must stick with it and act happy.

Customer service employees face other challenges too. They might be grieving, like my friend Jenny, or just be having a bad day. Perhaps they dislike their co-workers, boss, or even their customers. It could be that they're tired of defending a defective product or a dumb policy.

Working conditions for customer service employees aren't always great. While intellectual and physical skills are highly valued, studies show you don't make a lot of money for being good at taking crap from other people. 

Unpredictable schedules can also make outside of work difficult. This incredible New York Times article profiled a young single mother who tried to balance school and child care while dealing with a work schedule that could change from week-to-week or even day to day. 

It's no surprise that retailers are currently under investigation by several states for requiring employees to be on-call for work without getting paid.


The Impact on Service

There are many ways that surface acting and emotional labor impact service. 

The obvious one is employees simply get tired. Expending too much emotional labor is one of the biggest reasons why customer service employee struggle to be friendly

Researcher Alicia Grandey at Penn State University discovered a strong link between surface acting and low job satisfaction. She also found a clear link to emotional exhaustion.

This may explain why my own study found that 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The tangible impact of all of these problems is lower customer satisfaction, lower employee engagement, and higher turnover. 


What Can You Do About It?

On a personal level, it's up to each employee to find his or her own happiness. One exercise you can try is called the Attitude Anchor.

For customer service managers, the solution isn't another incentive program or some other short-term fix. It's also not an annual employee engagement survey, which is usually a waste of time. Your challenge is to create a work environment where employees can actually be happy.

You need a really plan. Try creating your own road map by using this simple assessment or use the New Year as an opportunity to opt for a comprehensive, full-service version.

Above all, give your employees something to smile about.