Sound and vision: Pumping up the volume on worker voice in aesthetic labour

Western society tends to emphasize the visual senses. Nevertheless, how workers speak and what they say is as important as their looks in aesthetic labour. However as Elizabeth Eustace points out in an article recently published in Work, Employment and Society, workers’ speech has been relatively neglected by researchers. It’s a neglect that needs to be rectified.

Our speech is socialised. There are two outcomes. Firstly, what we say and how we say it defines us; it both classifies us – where we’re from, what education we’ve had and who our parents are. Secondly, because some forms of speech are more favoured than others, it hierarchicalises us. There are thus more and less desirable ways of speaking. What playwright George Bernard Shaw said in his foreword to his play Pygmalion at the start of the twentieth century is still pertinent today in the twenty-first: ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate and despise him.’

Organisations also have their preferred linguistic codes. Employers try to hire people who speak in particular ways because it reflects on the organisation and how it is perceived. Organisations also train employees to speak in particular ways, suggesting what is to be said and how it is to be said.

Deanna Benedict is a voice movement therapy practitioner who works with individuals and companies to change voices. ‘People are becoming more aware of how voice influences the image of a company’ and how it can ‘make the right impression with the customer,’ she says.  In my research with colleagues in Glasgow, respondents working in retail told us that they were provided with scripts that outlined what was to be said and how. They were told to start sentences with ‘I can’ to denote enthusiasm for example: ‘I can get that for you.’

There can also be market matching, with organisations wanting employees whose speech reflects that of the market segment that the organisation wants to target. Other respondents working in a designer fashion store explained to us that there was a list of prescribed words provided by the company that had to be used with customers to describe outfits; ‘You weren’t allowed to say “nice” or “lovely”. You had to say that’s “exquisite” … You have to say “fabric” and not “material”. Companies operating in mid and upmarket segments impose different linguistic codes. Speaking about his experience of working in hotels, another respondent explained, ‘At an ordinary level, three stars, your accent is not too important. When it gets to five stars and you’re working in posh places you should be able to pronounce things clearly and properly.’ Another, female, hotel worker agreed: ‘They try and recruit people that are going to fill their guests’ expectations.’

These expectations are most salient in call centres which rely on voice-to-voice customer service interaction. There is a vast amount of research on call centres. Early research focused on organisations seeking out cheap labour to make cost savings. There was a hint in the research of Peter Bain that workers’ accents could be a problem. To create jobs, Birmingham, Alabama was keen to attract call centres. Training was provided ‘cost-free’ to employers and focused on basic work discipline – punctuality and attendance etc. but it also included ‘non-accent training’. This speech training was seen as important because the local Alabama accent is perceived elsewhere in the US as ‘dumb’ and workers needed to tone down their local accent, Bain suggested.

This issue is made even more acute with the offshoring of call centre operations from the US and UK to places such as India. More recent research by Vandana Nath suggests three reasons. First, workers must be aurally comprehendible to US and UK customers. Second, adopting the speech of customers generates empathy between workers and customer. Third, it masks the location of the workers and so deflects potentially uncomfortable questions from customers about the offshoring of jobs. Drawing on the work of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for Eustace such practice is ‘verbal hygiening’ but, staying with Bourdieu, it also exacts symbolic violence on individuals in that it stigmatises, dismisses and attempts to transmute workers’ mother tongue in the pursuit of commercial benefit.

In research of US call centres in India, Winnie Poster notes that technical training in these companies’ operations’ ‘hard skills’ is short, lasting only a week or two. However soft skills’ training lasts up to three months and teaches employees about American voice and accent as well as geography, business and culture: ‘You have to sound similar to them [the customer]’ one of her call centre workers explained. Work in these call centres is thus physically and psychologically tough because workers have to deny their own and have to fake another identity. Nath argues that in forcing workers to do so employers are now embarked upon ‘national identity management’ in which Indian workers losing control over their sense of local identity and have another forced upon them.

Interestingly, employee responses to this verbal hygiening are mixed. Ten per cent of Poster’s respondents report actively resisting, refusing to adopt American speech and identity. Just over 30 per cent object, but then some do and some don’t act upon this objection. Just over 40 per cent accommodate the demand, disagreeing with it in principle but complying for pragmatic reasons. These reasons are articulated by the 10 per cent who assimilate, believing that the requirement to sound American makes good business sense and can help them in their personal development  – that is, enables them to have a relatively good job and later perhaps enter the US to study.

This and other emerging research highlights how employee appeal to customer senses is also aural as well as visual. The oft-used shorthand for aesthetic labour, the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ needs to be carried through into empirical analysis. If aesthetic labour makes us aware of workers’ embodiment in the service encounter, then awareness of speech needs to become more salient in research of aesthetic labour. That research needs to focus not just on managerially imposed verbal hygiene practices and workers experiences and perceptions of those practices but how such practices are reconfiguring the globalised service encounter.

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