Friday, May 20, 2011

Status, Emotions and Disclosure in the Workplace

Emotional Expressions
In October of 2010 an interesting study by Kraus, Cote and Keltner was published that correlated lower socio-economic status with an increased ability to recognize the emotions others may be experiencing. They postulated that this ability among the have-less has been developed as a survival skill in the true Darwinian sense of the term. Wealthier people are less dependent on others for their safety and well-being therefore they have not perfected the art of anticipating their needs. But working class and poorer folks' destinies are more dependent on the external world and the fickle winds of fate. They are not more compliant when confronted with those needs, just more observant.

Another fact they discovered is that what they termed "lower-class" individuals are more expressive to begin with than those of higher economic status, something I have frequently observed in various job environments.
When I worked in a factory making wind chimes for piecework pay my co-workers and I would listen to the radio, sing to it and chat about our lives as our fingers moved as quickly as possible tying ceramic pieces with string. When I was a drafting technician the guys didn't talk much, but the women who worked in the office would talk about everything from sex to laundry detergent.

After I got my master's degree at UC Berkeley I entered a "professional" employment world fraught with treachery. Talking too much about personal life or politics was considered not only gauche but dangerous. What people know can be used as ammunition to throw someone off the job ladder we were all supposed to want to climb to the top. The safest topics for conversation consist of those that are specifically job-related. My boss explicitly told me that If things were rocky back home I had to put it all aside and show the world that stiff upper lip.

An article today on Alternet: The Big Squeeze: How Americans are Being Crushed by Financial Insecurity and Doubt illustrates this mentality perfectly. It concludes with the following quote:

"We shouldn’t lose sight of the more invisible, but mounting, resistance of the moral underground. As it grows, it may undermine one of the great social fictions grounding American capitalism: That one leaves one’s morals and politics at the office, factory or store door when one enters the job site. This fiction is based on the well-propagated notion that when one sells one’s labor power one leaves one’s personal beliefs and values at home.  This social fiction is crumbling under the pressure of the Big Squeeze."

The enforced stoicism that makes for such an uncomfortable workplace is giving way to a new reality, one that recognizes the players as human beings and relies upon a new moral imperative to look out for them. This is a significant shift especially for those of us who come from a background full of animated, expressive people who have historically relied on one another to survive. It may help us build a movement to enable us to eke out a future in the bleak landscape of New America.