April 25, 2011

Cross-Cultural Emotional Labor

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

Recently my internet access went down. Not five minutes before, I had been on the phone with a billing representative who told me I could save a few dollars a month if I bundled my internet with another service. So I agreed, thinking I just did a good thing.

When I couldn’t get on the internet—which I needed to access for the work I had been doing before I took a break to make that phone call—I was furious. Why didn’t the rep tell me that changing the billing might affect my service?

I had called their technical support line before, and I knew I was in for a long hold time before reaching an overseas call center. Although the rep spoke English well, there were some things he didn’t understand, such as how to track a shipment (which contained my then-missing modem).


“Your package has arrived,” he confidently told me, referring to a tracking website that said it had arrived—from the warehouse to the shipping company’s sorting location.

We went back and forth for a while, as I tried to explain that the city where the package arrived was across the country from where I lived, and although it had arrived somewhere, it was not yet in my possession.

In addition to simple misunderstandings, cultural differences in expressing emotions characterize phone calls like these. Part of a customer service rep’s job is dealing with the customer’s emotional response to a problem.

Emotional labor takes place when part of a job entails managing one’s own emotions, or attempting to manage others’. As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote about in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, flight attendants must not only appear friendly to sometimes difficult passengers, but also mask any fear they might feel in the course of flight.

Sally Raskoff recently blogged about the emotional work that Disneyland employees engage in, and while some positions require more emotional labor than others, most jobs demand that we manage our emotions appropriately.

But what if we are interacting with people from other cultures? What constitutes “appropriate” emotional labor?

Something that I have learned when calling customer service lines is that it is important to be clear about what the problem is, and to remain calm no matter how upset I am. As customer service advice articles like this one suggest, irate customers who swear or berate employees are likely to alienate customer service reps, who then won’t truly want to help them.

My experiences with seeking customer service in my cultural context have taught me that it’s appropriate to express dissatisfaction in a calm manner. In the past, I have observed others who politely let a restaurant manager know about poor service and have received vouchers for a future meal. Informing another company that I’d be pricing the services of their competitor led to a guarantee of a price match. Calmly explaining how I’d been incorrectly booked to the wrong city when purchasing an airline ticket through their customer service line led to rebooking with no extra charge.

So in my experience, being assertive and polite seems to be not only the appropriate way to manage emotions, but it also leads to better service and possibly a monetary reward.

I approached my conversation about the internet access problem in the same manner: I was calm, but clear about my dissatisfaction with the problem. I let the rep know that I knew it was not his fault, but that I wished that I might have been warned that this could happen so I would have made the change after an important work deadline had passed.

The customer service rep went into overdrive; he focused on trying to cheer me up rather than tell me what the problem might be and how to fix it.

“Do you like basketball? What about music?” he asked, wanting to know my favorite players and songs. “What can I do to make you put a smile on your face?”

I grew more frustrated and worked to hide my irritation. Wasn’t I clear? I want my internet to work, and that’s all I needed from the interaction.

My cultural expectations suggested a different response from him, something along the lines of, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, and I’ll do my best to restore your internet access as soon as possible.”

I’ve noticed that other interactions with overseas call centers were similar, with questions or comments that strayed from the purpose of my call. One rep told me that I had the sweetest voice he’d ever heard, and just knew I would have my own radio show someday. Another asked what kind of work I do, something that felt intrusive because it is not typically part of the cultural customer service script I am used to.

As technology has made outsourcing cheaper, we are more likely to have regular cross-cultural encounters like these. Shows like Outsourced take a humorous look at the challenges customer service reps face learning how to interact with Americans. (It’s easier to laugh when you haven’t been waiting on hold to talk to someone.)

What cross-cultural training would you offer to help customer service reps at call centers best interact with Americans?



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Cross-Cultural experiences are a prime example of social deviance. It provides norms that we aren't used to. For example, it was mentioned how the overseas representatives often seem to change the subject while they attmept to deal with the problem. This is because it is what they have learned in their culture. Americans are used to being talked through their problems. When we call a technical support system, we want the representative to explain to us how they are going to fix the problems we are experiencing. We didn't call to have a conversation. To us that seems unprofessional and we feel like the representative doesn't really know how to fix the problem. At this point, Americans become irritated because they feel like they are going to have more problems when this one has been solved. Americans need to decide if we can deal with this small burst of culture shock, or if the extra cost is worth bringing technical support jobs back to America.

In her book "Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels", Rachel Sherman explores how hotel employees normalize socioeconomic inequality between their own situations and the evident wealth of luxury hotel guests. She also discusses how they must tailor their behavior to international guests, particularly those who are not accustomed to tipping. The way that we deal with these cross-cultural experiences is, as the above comment notes, a crystallization of the ways in which we interact with social deviance. Your points about remaining calm and clear with customer service representatives is spot-on about Americans, but every country differs. Scandinavians are blunt, according to our norms, and known for their lack of dissembling and 'political correctness'.

It requires cultural sensitivity on both parts, the customer and the provider, for the customer is apt to take their business elsewhere if they feel unsatisfied emotionally. There is a classic example of this in "Confucius Lives Next Door", by T.R. Reid. The book explores Japanese culture in the 1990s from the perspective of an American ex-pat and he relates an anecdote about a discussion between the Japanese PM and American President, in which the PM responds to an American request with a phrase along the lines of "We will give your suggestion all positive consideration in the future", which, to the Japanese, is a polite no. The President instead took it to be a positive response and expected acquiescence, which he never received. Successful emotional labor increasingly relies upon cross-cultural awareness - you have to be able to provide them with at least an approximation of what they are looking for in order to communicate effectively.

Very good article. I agree that polite and assertive is the best course. This is not always ana easy lesson to learn.

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