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«Journal of Sociolinguistics 4/3, 2000: 323±347 Styling the worker: Gender and the commodi®cation of language in the globalized service economy1 ...»

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It is not surprising that service workers should receive instructions on the subject of asking questions, since question-answer routines are characteristic of institutional talk (Drew and Heritage 1992). What is more interesting, however, is the stress placed on using questions not merely to elicit information (the function that makes questioning so central to institutional discourse), but to display interest in the customer as a person, to make the interaction a more `genuine' dialogue, and to give the customer `space' to speak freely and at length. This concern (facilitating extended talk) is observable in advice on the kinds of questions workers are told they should prefer. Typically they are advised to avoid what linguists would call `conducive' questions, those which strongly favour a predetermined answer, and select instead the kinds of questions that encourage extended talk by the addressee. (In training materials these are usually called `open questions' and usually equated with WH-syntax, though some materials do distinguish `how' and `why' questions from the rest.) According to gender researchers like Pamela Fishman (1983) and Janet Holmes (1984), using questions to facilitate talk ± an `interpersonal' rather # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 STYLING THE WORKER 337 than purely `informational' use of language ± is a strategy associated in particular with women speakers.

–  –  –

With the foregoing examples I hope I have shown that the ways of interacting recommended in training and appraisal materials for call centre operators bear a striking resemblance to ways of speaking that are associated, in the popular imagination and also in some instances by empirical research, with women speakers rather than men. This might prompt the question: do the style designers themselves make the connection?

In my view, the answer to this question is `yes and no'. On one hand, there is evidence that many call centre managers regard young women, in particular, as `naturally' suited to the work (Reardon 1996). That the preference for women is based at least partly on a perception of them as `better' at certain kinds of interpersonal communication is illustrated by the following remarks, quoted by Melissa Tyler and Steve Taylor from an interview with a manager at

an airline reservation call centre:

The vast, vast majority of the agents we select are women... it's not as if we don't get men applying for the job, up here [in north east England, an area of high unemployment ± DC] you tend to get applications from everybody for everything... [women] just seem to ®t better, they're better at it... we are looking for people who can chat to people, interact, build rapport. What we ®nd is that women can do this more, they're de®nitely more natural when they do it anyway. It doesn't sound as forced, perhaps they're used to doing it all the time anyway... women are naturally good at that sort of thing. I think they have a higher tolerance level than men... I suppose we do, yes, if we're honest about it, select women sometimes because they are women rather than because of something they've particularly shown in the interview. (Tyler and Taylor 1997: 10) On the other hand, organizations do not present the ideal speech style explicitly as a gendered style: women may be considered `naturally good at that sort of thing', but the `thing' in question is not just (tautologically) `being women', and the same style is also expected of men. What the preferred style of communication overtly signi®es is not `femininity' but `good customer service'. This raises the question: why should performing `good customer service' involve so many of the same linguistic strategies as performing `femininity'? What is the nature of the connection between the two?

To answer this question it is necessary to consider the question of symbolic # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 338 CAMERON meaning. In an in¯uential paper, Elinor Ochs (1992) argued that the linguistic indexing of gender is not usually direct ± in other words, there are few verbal markers whose exclusive and unambiguous meaning is `this speaker is a woman/a man'. More commonly gender is indexed by using language that signi®es a role (e.g. `mother') or a quality (e.g. `modesty') which is linked in turn by cultural convention to femininity or masculinity. In a similar vein, one might suggest that the practice of styling in call centres recruits a linguistic style already conventionally coded as `feminine' to index the meaning `good customer service'. What enables this connection to be made is not simply the common-sense belief `customer service is a woman's role' (that would just beg the original question of why serving customers is regarded as a woman's role), but rather the congruence between the meanings and values attached to `femininity' and those attached to `good service'.

Some degree of congruence between the two sets of meanings may well have existed for a long time, but the connection has become more compelling as a result of recent developments in the culture of business. What is entailed by `customer service' has been rede®ned as part of organizations' response to globalization. A particular philosophy of service has come to dominate organizational thinking and practice, and it is this, I will argue, that has given the meanings attached to `women's language' new relevance and value for the service sector.



It is frequently noted that globalization involves a shift away from industrial production. In his in¯uential book The Work of Nations, former U.S. Labour secretary Robert Reich (1992) popularized the notion of two major categories of post-industrial workers, `symbolic analysts' (a knowledge-producing elite) and `in-person servers' (a larger and less privileged group servicing the needs of others). Of this second group, which includes call centre operators, Gee, Hull and Lankshear (1996: 46±47) observe that their work `tends to call primarily for reliability, loyalty... the capacity to take direction and... ``a pleasant demeanour'' '. And indeed, the issue of service workers' `demeanour' has become increasingly salient as large numbers of organizations have adopted the philosophy known as `customer care'. The idea is to make customers feel they are not merely being served but actively and individually `cared for': it is believed that this close attention to each customer's needs and feelings promotes loyalty to the company and thus enhances its `competitive advantage' in the market.

For service workers the upshot of all this is that they ®nd themselves performing more and more of what sociologists of work call `emotional labour' (Hochschild 1983) ± the management of feelings. This has consequences for the language of customer service, which becomes a more # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 STYLING THE WORKER 339 `expressive' language, a language of feeling and a language of caring. The ability, not merely to sound polite and professional but to project positive emotions towards customers using the resources of language and voice, is highly valued. Recall the instruction in the directory assistance centre's manual for employees, quoted above: `your telephone manner should sound as if you have been waiting for that particular call all day' (this in relation to a service encounter lasting 32 seconds or less); or the auto insurance centre's exhortation about beginning a call, `try to make the customer feel you are there for them'.

It is neither unusual nor coincidental that the quasi-therapeutic phrase `to be there for someone' appears in this instruction: customer care training materials and management books about customer relations draw extensively on the register of therapy and counselling. In some instances, routine service work is portrayed as if it were a caring profession in its own right. Management consultant David Freemantle, for example, in a book titled What Customers Like About You: Adding Emotional Value for Service Excellence and Competitive Advantage, advises service workers (e.g. shop assistants) to practise

what amounts to amateur therapy on their customers (Freemantle 1998:


. If a customer comes across as cold and dident, convince yourself that beneath the surface is a warm, caring, loving human being. Try to reach that suppressed warmth by injecting emotional warmth into your own words.

. If a customer comes across as being overpowering and e€usive, convince yourself that beneath the surface is someone who is desperate for recognition and admiration. Therefore in responding to the customer, try to underline your words with a tone of emotional approval.

. If a customer comes across as being kind and caring then respond in the same way, ensuring that your voice is soft, rounded and undulates smoothly to re¯ect your own feelings of compassion.

By drawing on your feelings and emotions to ®ne-tune the way you use your voice, you will be much better able to connect emotionally with customers and become someone they really like.

Freemantle in this passage is clearly describing a form of `emotional labour', involving the management of both the customer's feelings and the worker's own. (The section from which I take the quotation is titled `The Emotional Voice'.) The point has often been made that emotion in general is discursively constructed (certainly in anglophone cultures) as a `feminine' domain (Lutz 1990); both `emotional expressiveness' and `caring' are salient symbolic meanings of `women's language'. If, as I have suggested, these are also key values in new regimes of customer care, that provides a rationale for making a `feminine' or feminized linguistic style the norm in service contexts.

It should not be overlooked, though, that emotional labour, and indeed service work in general, is not performed only by women. Women still represent the majority of rank-and-®le employees in many service workplaces (including # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 340 CAMERON most call centres), but the relentless rise of the service sector and the concurrent decline of manufacturing industry mean that increasingly, men are also ®nding employment in routine customer service positions. Talk of `changing gender roles at work' may conjure up the familiar icon of Rosie the Riveter, but in today's reality it is more likely to mean Charlie the checkout clerk and Kevin the call centre operator. Charlie and Kevin are subject to exactly the same communicational demands and linguistic styling practices as their female colleagues; it is of interest to ask how they negotiate the expectation that they will interact with customers in what is, covertly if not overtly, a `feminine' linguistic persona.

The male call centre operators I interviewed in the course of my research in Britain did not consider their gender to be an issue. Where they were critical of the call centre regime, the main issue, for them as for female operators, was the arti®ciality, inauthenticity, and in some cases extreme subservience, of the persona imposed on them by scripts and styling rules.9 These informants seemed to orient more to the overt meaning of the preferred style ± `good service' ± than to its covertly gendered meaning. (Of course, I cannot claim that my own small group of male informants constitute a representative sample for the country as a whole.) In the U.S.A., on the other hand, although I did no systematic ®eldwork, I did meet men, and hear stories about men, who perceived the behaviour they were required to produce in customer service contexts (such as shops, restaurants and call centres) as `feminizing' and for that reason problematic. For instance, one woman told me a story about her son's experience working for a chain of Mexican restaurants. Employees were required to send diners on their way with a scripted farewell sequence that included a cheery wave. No one liked performing this embarrassingly phony routine, but the men found the wave especially problematic, since they regarded the gesture as `e€eminate'. Eventually they solved the problem by rendering it as a quasi-salute.10 Although the evidence given above is anecdotal, it does suggest that some of the risks involved in adopting a prescribed service style may be di€erent for women and men. At least some men ®nd aspects of the style threatening to their gender and/or sexual identity. For women on the other hand a recurrent complaint concerns the risk of being exposed to sexual harassment. Here the evidence is not just anecdotal. In 1998, a group of female Safeway supermarket workers in California complained at a union conference about the company's `superior service' programme. The friendliness, personal interest and eagerness to please that employees had to display were treated by many male customers, the workers claimed, as signs of `romantic interest' and invitations to `lewd behaviour' (Grimsley 1998). If one accepts the feminist argument that sexual harassment is a way of asserting power over the target rather than simply a display of erotic interest in her (sex may be the means but domination is the end), this might well remind us of another symbolic meaning attached to `women's language': powerlessness or subservience. In the culture of customer # Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 STYLING THE WORKER 341 care, the old maxim `the customer is king' is taken to new extremes; this too may be a factor in the appropriation of WL as the preferred style for customer service.

CONCLUSION In this paper I have explored some issues relating to the regulation of spoken language used by workers in contemporary service environments. I will conclude by trying to gather the main threads of the argument, brie¯y taking up a few outstanding questions, and suggesting reasons why the phenomena discussed here should be of interest to students of language and society.

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