Kristin Stewart Never Smiles: The Smile Double Standard in the Service Industry


The restaurant industry in the U.S. reportedly has around 12.9 million employees. I am one waiter in a sea of many other (mostly) smiling faces. A large majority of jobs require at least some amount of personality modification in order to perform according to company expectations of presentation. But taking a cue from self-proclaimed non-smiler and IDGAF personality Kristen Stewart, it's time we take a look at "smile, baby" culture and what service industry professionals are actually getting paid for. 

What is "smile, baby" culture? Blogger, Rachel McCarthy James gives a good starter guide to understanding it. At it's most basic, I would define it as the pressure for those working in the service industry (or, like Stewart, in the public eye) to perform to expectations of the customer to be congenial, bubbly, and a host of other embodiments of positively wonderful personality traits. Having discussed this topic with some of my fellow waiters, I would also say that this phenomenon is more uniquely felt and experienced by women in the profession. 

My interest piqued as to this curious (potentially gendered) experience, I decided to conduct a miniature (definitively not perfectly scientific) experiment at work. After having observed some of my male colleagues and how they interact with their tables, I attempted to mimic their time-logged talking with tables, general expressions used while in conversation with tables, and their overall demeanor towards guests. 

What I found in this day-long escapade was that the minute the smile comes off, the questions start coming. I was asked by co-workers all day if something was wrong, if I was tired, and in some cases, was simply asked to smile. Though I can't compare tips over the course of one day (as business fluctuates too much), I can report that I definitely felt a difference in treatment from guests at my tables. They asked less questions of me, looked as if they were put-off by my demeanor, and seemed to mimic my distance. 

Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor of sociology at Berkeley, wrote The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, about this very topic in 1983. Through researching the work of flight attendants, Hochschild looks into, what she terms "emotional labor", and what it means for the working service industry individual. Much of the descriptions of emotional labor mesh with that of "smile, baby" culture and present an ever-present difficulty (especially for women) on the job, as documented in the book.

There's a lot going on here that prevents a clear value judgement being made on whether or not this sort of payment for emotional labor is conclusively "bad" or "good." What is clear though is that there is a present stressor at work that faces those in the service industry more acutely than others;  (and women in that industry feel it more strongly than men). It is also fairly clear that these expectations exist largely due to the way our society constructs gender. 

Stewart has been forthcoming about how she refuses to acquiese to the pressure she feels to "smile, baby" even while she receives her weighty paychecks which are laregely due to being in the public eye (and maintaining popularity) and performing. But is there such an opt-out option for those whose work is a little more mundane and less glamorous than Stewart's? I'm not sure "smile, baby" culture can disappear until we, as a society, change our expectations of gender performance; allowing women to appear focused without being read as surly. Or allowing men to appear empathetic without being labeled as "girly". Or allowing those who identify in another gender category to be their true selves without being labeled as "weird" and subject to bullying and oftentimes worse treatment. 

While these goalsmay seem a long way off from achievement, we can all take a big step in the right direction by catching ourselves mid-thought when we are about to make a judgement on someone else based solely on their appearance or presentation. It takes practice, and it's no easy task, but it will inevitably open up space for more honest relationships and more supportive work (and non-work) environments.