Squashed cabbages? The working class and aesthetic labour

The University of Washington in St Louis has just hosted a colloquium on invisible labour. It was organised by Winnie Poser and her colleagues at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital. Two key questions informed the meeting: what counts as work, and why are some workers invisible? The starting point for the debate was the many forms of labour that are hidden from public view.

The keynote was provided by Arlie Hochschild who discussed her recent book The Outsourced Self. Everything including intimacy can now be bought on the market she explained – we can hire trainers to teach us to be the CEO of our love life, wedding planners, parenting surrogates and people to choose our babies names for example. All of our lives’ activities, not just our labour are now being commodified and sub-contracted to others. We need to reveal and research this development she said. 

The body in work was once also invisible but is now exposed through aesthetic labour and it was the focus of a number of papers at the colloquium. One, by Dianne Avery, highlighted the emergence of a niche of ‘breastaurants’ in the US. These restaurants’ waitering staff are attractive young women dressed in revealing, provocative attire. Dianne argued that, whilst paid low wages, these staff add considerable brand value to these restaurants but that added value is not recompensed, she said. Another paper by Christine Williams picked up on the theme of aesthetic labour as low wage, no career work. She noted that young middle class workers in upscale retail work not for money but for the brand allure. Prestige, not pay is the attraction. However these workers quickly become disillusioned and quit. With a queue of wannabe workers in these upscale retail stores, employers have no recruitment difficulties and deliberately operate a high turnover labour strategy. With this labour surplus employers don’t need, and are certainly not willing, to improve job quality. This strategy has knock-on effects, Christine argued: aesthetic labour isn’t just a bad job, it keeps other jobs bad in retail.

My own contribution focused on a relatively neglected aspect of aesthetic labour: workers’ speech. It took as its starting point George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.  In the opening scene  the linguist and elocution coach, Professor Higgins casts a disparaging eye over the working class street-traders in London’s early twentieth century Covent Garden. He despairs at their spoken word; it offends his ears. Moreover their guttural accents keep them at the bottom of life’s heap: they are ‘squashed cabbages’ he says. He notes how ‘upstarts’ with working class origins come to him for speech lessons; lessons that will help them improve, what we would now call, their ‘employability’ and so their socio-economic circumstances.

Individuals act to switch linguistic codes in this way in other to gain personal material benefit – better pay and prospects. Michelle Dockery, an actress in the internationally successful period costume drama Downton Abbey TV series, is one such recent example. Early in her career Michelle recognised that her accent was holding her back. Struggling to find work, she realised that it had to change it if she was to have a career in acting. Today, with an elocution make-over, her accent is now more upstairs than downstairs.

With aesthetic labour, companies too are interested in workers’ speech, using it as a source of competitive advantage. Workers are told what to say and how to say it either to simply appeal positively to the aural senses of customers or because such speech aligns with the brand image of the company. In the Glasgow study that I conducted with colleagues, one hotel worker 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.’ A worker in an upscale fashion retailer selling to affluent customers described how there was a list of proscribed and prescribed words when talking to customers and describing outfits; ‘You weren’t allowed to say “nice” or “lovely”. You had to say that’s “exquisite”, that’s “glamorous”, that looks such and such.’

In his history of the English language Melvyn Bragg points out some words have ‘a touch more cultural clout’, denoting and enforcing hierarchy. Employers prescribing words such as ‘exquisite’ rather than the more prosaic ‘lovely’ reflects the class buried in language: ‘exquisite’ has Latin (Norman) origins and ‘lovely’ is Old English (Celtic) and so denotes upper/middle and working class respectively.

The danger is that with aesthetic labour, working class speech becomes proscribed, erased from the workplace, and the working class excluded from jobs. A bank teller related an incident of a colleague who was ostensibly dismissed on the basis of poor performance, not just because of the way that she looked because also because of the way that she spoke. In Eustace’s study, employers provided training to ‘correct’ working class Glaswegian Scots. Some workers resisted but most of her subjects acquiesced, their language squashed. The message to the working class wanting jobs in the retail, hospitality and banking industries is clear: modify your speech or risk becoming invisible in the labour market. During our Glasgow study hospitality employers complained of recruitment difficulties whilst yet pockets of high youth unemployment existed in the city’s working class districts.

Is the answer to provide these youth with the type of elocution lessons offered by Henry Higgins? Famously, it was the solution that flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, famously sought from Higgins. And it brought the benefits that she wanted – a better job. It also provided here with a voice in a, then, male dominated world. As the preface to Pygmalion makes clear, the story is as much about empowerment as it is about speech and social class. As aesthetic labour becomes more embedded in the workplace the twin issues of labour market invisibility and so exclusion, and the response to that exclusion by government and other agencies such as those concerned with equal opportunities will  only become more salient

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