Monday, January 10, 2011

The death of You're welcome

Emotional Labour is a phenomenon (mid-late 20th century) of westernised societies, whereby workers have to manage their emotions during service encounters, or at least appear to be experiencing various emotions, such as pleasure at serving someone. Like most things in our culture, it's aimed at getting you to buy more stuff. It was first noticed by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, and is exemplified by the fixed smile on flight attendants, along with phrases like "Have a nice day." It's a very American thing - on my first visits to the US, I was always thrown by the "greeter" of a store, who would say hi and ask you how you are. British shop service tends to be lukewarm, much like the rest of British culture. Servers rarely approach you and if they must be engaged, both parties try to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Another Emotional Labour phrase is "You're welcome", which seems to be quintessentially American - I've never heard anyone in Britain utter it, ever. It is heard in shops, for example, when you say thank you after a server hands you change, but it is so widespread that it occurs in non-service encounters, like after you say thank you to someone for holding the lift for you. (The British equivalent, if there is one, seems to be "That's OK". It's taken me ages to get used to "You're welcome". It's one of those phrases that seems to backfire a bit, often coming across as rather curt, especially as it seems to be recited without any real thought or emotion. It's just something you say.

But on this trip to America, nobody said "You're welcome" to me at all. Just when you get used to an aspect of a foreign culture, they go and change the rules. Now, when you say "thank you", the American person says "Mm hm" back to you. Sometimes it sounds sassy in a RuPaul type of way.

"Mm hmm honey!"

Sometimes it's barely audible and involves no eye contact. It's the barest acknowledgement, even more perfunctory than the sleep-talking, rote-learnt "You're welcome". And it comes across as surly. Perhaps it's the recession. I never thought I would say it, but I miss "You're welcome."

Still, I come back from the US even more enamoured with Manhattan than ever before. People often ask me "Why do you go to New York?" and when I say "To be a tourist", they look at me with scorn or sympathy, as "tourism" is such a degraded concept these days. However, I love being a tourist. That's what being on holiday is about. I want to be able to spend money freely, see plays, musicals and films that are not available where I normally live, traipse around museums or walk everywhere and take multiple random detours just to explore new neighbourhoods, wake up late, have my bed made for me, eat a three course meal in a different restaurant each evening and spend every waking moment with my husband. If tourism is wrong, then I don't want to be right.

Added to this is the fact that my Britishness, a quality so dreary in almost every other context, is the equivalent of a starburst filter and a facelift to American eyes and ears. Even the crippling social awkwardness that is my British heritage comes across as exotic and glamorous - I am Hugh Grant or Colin Firth in a classy Britcom, rather than the result of a diffident education which despised success (show-offs). Even when I hear my own voice, drowned out by all those loud drawls, I think I sound cleverer and posher than I actually am. I like myself better as a foreigner.

My new favourite part of Manhattan is Greenwich Village, specifically Christopher Street. I so want to live on Christopher Street. Once the birthplace of the modern gay identity - and the location of the famous Stonewall riots, it's housed Dick Francis, Yoko Ono and Amy Sedaris. It's now a lot quieter than it was in the 1970s, when gay men would promenade up and down it all hours of the day and night, and Greenwich, having become all gentrified and expensive, is no longer such a hub of the avante guarde and culturally innovative. One of its latest claims to fame was that it kicked off the world's current obsession with cupcakes, thanks to the Magnolia Bakery on Bleeker Street.

I guess cupcakes don't exactly have the same bohemian edge as say, Jack Kerouac.

Around mid-2011, I'm due a long sabbatical. So if things go according to plan you'll find me in Greenwich Village, eating cupcakes and saying "mm hmm", or whatever has replaced it by then.


Perhaps I have just alienated everybody ("it's his personality unfortunately"), but judging by the lack of comments on recent posts, nobody seems to be reading blogs (or at least, this blog). I don't mind really. The blog acts as a useful reminder to me, so that when I have senile dementia, people can read out bits of it back to me and see a flicker of recognition.

But after months in obscurity. I am back on Facebook. Hopefully I can figure out how to organise my friends into groups better this time, so my work colleagues won't see photos of my grown up nephew in Borat fancy dress.

12 comments: said...

Though I find I cannot always directly relate to it, and at other times find you're reading my mind and blogging it; I am still faithfully reading you in my RSS feeder.

Dessie xx

Tom said...

I am also a faithful reader - I really enjoy readinf your posts. Keep them flowing.

Luke said...

I also read your blog. I think everyone's just too shy to comment most of the time. I made a blog, very briefly although no one read it/knew it existed and I cringe everytime I read it again...even though that was only 6 months ago. But no, we still read, so keep blogging!

Anonymous said...

Keep blogging, baby!

encyclotedium said...

I have read your blog for a number of years and have always found it engaging. No-one leaves me comments either; perhaps I'm not being engaging enough to elicit any response. Oh well. You're right though: blogs are becoming less popular following the popularity of social networking and microblogging. Nobody wants to read anything longer than 200 words. Shame.

And as for 'You're welcome', I have always said it; I was taught to at school. I'm 35 and grew up in Yorkshire. I had never associated it with America and know loads of people who say it. Are you sure you've never heard it? I always thought it was just basic manners.

Paul Brownsey said...

Why not, sometimes at least, respond to comments when you get them? I've occasionally made comments that might have been thought to invite a response; when you didn't respond I assumed you thought them too naff or silly or uncool to merit one, so was discouraged from doing so again and retreated into lack of self-esteem. They weren't stalkerish; not overtly so, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Yes, response to comments would be helpful now and again. It would at least show us that you read them, and that would be further incentive for us to write them!

theguyliner said...

I think I'd rather Lubin said nothing than told me how crass my comments were. If I don't respond to comments it's usually because I don't think there's much else to say, unless I'm being flamed mercilessly. But thank you to anyone who does.

Lubin said...

I didn't make the point about the recent lack of comments as a way of fishing for more comments - honest!

But I would say thanks to everyone who's left feedback to this blog posting, and to those of you who've left comments over the years.

I do read all the comments I get - and please don't be shy about commenting if you want to. Blogging/commenting is a two-way street, and needs respect on both sides. I also welcome private emails if you don't want to comment publicly.

Paul Brownsey - I'll try and take on board your point about posting responses to comments.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on a blog - or 'blommenting' - is great fun. It allows you the oxygen of publicity without having to carry the tank about.

Marmoset said...

I remember Christopher Street with fondness, especially since I had my headphones in and was just wandering, when 'Christopher Street' by Brian Kennedy came on. Perfect moment, perfect place, perfect song.

I continue to enjoy your posts, and have even managed to stay in touch with some elements of British TV and culture through it, so thank you!

Anonymous said...

I arrived through the backdoor (you should pardon the expression) lol, following an image of Rob James Collier (eye candy) in a google search result & dawdled while reading about your trip to RCM & appreciate the fact that there was no obligatory derogatory generalization about Americans, and you're so right, we love English accents, and Irish and Scottish (Scots?) and Australian, too. Which movie was it the English fellas came to America to get laid? Totally true. Gay or straight. Some dialects are hard to bend the ear around, but charming nonetheless. I'm from Atlanta, and I can only hope my southern accent sounds half as delightful.

You're welcome :)