May 2, 2021

Issue 134: Selling Our Personality

In the world of commercial enterprise, we are encouraged to present an altered version of ourselves, to deliver prescriptive emotional responses. But what damage are we doing ourselves in the process?

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Larry G. Maguire
The Sunday Letters Podcast is the weekly audio newsletter from organisational psychologist Larry Maguire on the meaning & purpose of daily work and our paradoxical relationship with it. We explore how we may break free from tiresome means-to-an-end labour and take command of their own working lives. Topics include solo working, careers, entrepreneurship, small business economics, society and culture. Content follows the written newsletter, which goes out to subscribers every Sunday.
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Who are you at work? What persona do you adopt? Is it even fair to assume, or to realise, a separate self to the one that you ordinarily call you? More importantly, perhaps, how does taking on that identity make you feel? It is the you that “feels” to which I refer rather than the name tag and photo on your ID card. Do you know the difference? Often we don’t, and we find ourselves at odds with our daily work. It becomes an exhausting means to an end existence where we run the daily gauntlet of managing our emotions and demands of the job. It takes many of us to the emotional and physical edge.

Youthful, we leave the relative safety of home wide-eyed and full of beans, naive and enthusiastic for our emerging working life. We enter the workplace expecting it to fulfil our material, emotional, psychological, and creative needs. Assuming, that is, we’ve followed our curiosity and interest rather than the broadly accepted imperative to make money for money’s sake. Should the latter be the case, we might be happier in our work knowing that it is a bastard expecting nothing less than what it has to offer. I’ve met and worked with people that hold this idea. They say, “so what, it’s just a job,” or “nothing personal, it’s only business.” For these actors, the workplace is a volatile, ambiguous, and antagonistic arrangement between parties that are out for gain at others’ expense and indeed their own. And it takes its toll because, in such arrangements, we are compelled to forgo our sense of humanity.

Under the cosh of daily work, something tells you this or that task you’ve been given feels good or not. You get a sense that this thing might have a negative impact on someone else, so do you convince yourself it’s for their own good, or that maybe after a few hours, days, or weeks they’ll get over it? Maybe the adverse effect is yours. Ok, put on a smile, subvert your instinct, act to the contrary; the job needs to be done. Despite positive workplace relations, moments of enjoyment and fulfilment, wages to buy nice things and maintain a home, I’ve no doubt that many reading today’s Sunday Letters can relate to this. It is an aspect of the job they don’t tell you about. They don’t tell you in the job offer that should you accept, you may need to overthrow that aspect of you that seeks not to harm another human being.

Do I present a one-sided view of the workplace? Surely there are positive aspects? I would say there are, but just like the CEO that subverts his values and moral judgement for the benefit of shareholders, employees do it too, for the sake of their income. Only the employees are further down the food chain and occupy arguably a more dangerous role, that is, of the one who must pull the trigger. Quoting C. Wright Mills, Arlie Hochschild, in her book The Managed Heart1, says that when we sell our personality in the course of selling goods or services, we engage in a seriously self-estranging process, one that is increasingly common amongst workers in advanced capitalist systems. Hochschild says that in this selling of goods and services, we must apply effort, or “emotional labour,” involving “feeling rules” and “emotion work.” Like airline staff and restaurant waiters who always wear a smile, we manage our emotions to serve the corporate demand.

Her ideas are aligned with Erving Goffman’s work, on which I have written before, who in his 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life2, suggested that one-to-one everyday human interaction was in its essence theatrical. Goffman believed we always attempt to guide how others perceive us. In parallel, the other obtains information about us and forms a view of us. As such, there is a mutual exchange, a theatrical performance between parties. However, rather than being staged in a manipulative or phoney way, Goffman says the adoption of social roles is a natural occurrence in human behaviour. But working life is different, especially where we are required to adopt a prescriptive performance that aligns with corporate objectives.

In her study of the daily work of flight attendants and bill collectors, both male and female, Hochschild came to understand the phenomenon of emotional labour at a deeper level. She realised that workers try to preserve their sense of self by circumventing the “feeling rules” of work. The “feeling rules” tell workers how to respond to difficult circumstances, to “smile like you really mean it” as one flight attendant trainer insisted. Workers respond as prescribed, displaying the “right” feeling, but suffer anyway from a sense of being “false” or robotic. The more both givers and receivers engage in the fake exchange; it seems the more we are willing to accept the mechanical impersonal responses that seem to permeate contemporary life.

A couple of years ago, my work was keeping me mostly on the Southside of the city. A new coffee shop opened near where I worked, and parched of good quality coffee; I decided to give it a go. Maybe the area finally has a coffee shop I could keep coming back to, I thought. The owner worked behind the counter, getting his hands dirty as new small business owners must do. His place was clean and organised, and most importantly, it served good coffee. But something turned me off–his pleasantness. It was completely over the top, almost sickeningly so. He was smiling like he really meant it, and it turned me off.

In this case, and I’d hazard to guess many commercial engagements like it, there is a sense that if we present what we believe people expect, then they’ll buy more stuff from us. So it’s a big fat fake relationship, and I don’t believe there’s anything more damaging to our sense of self than this horrible game of pretend. We take living breathing organisms, place them in a fake plastic environment we call the workplace, tell them how to perform, bury their true feelings, and we expect them to remain healthy. It’s simply not going to happen. Work psychology tries to correct these discrepancies through research and intervention, but it’s a band-aid on an open wound. Measures to improve workplace conditions are welcome, but they are largely ineffective. Besides, corporations will only agree to workplace improvements where their bottom line is increased, or at worst, not impacted at all.

The world of people and commercial enterprise won’t stop today or tomorrow. But if you feel the disconnect between how they say you should feel in your work and how you really feel, then you should work to close the gap. You can compartmentalise your feelings for only too long before it catches up. If we want to be happy and fulfilled in our work, I don’t believe we have any other option other than to remove ourselves from that arrangement.

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Hochschild, A. R. (2012). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.


Goffman, E. (2002). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1959. Garden City, NY259.