If it’s springtime in Paris, it has to be if not sex then at least summer in the city – New York City. Luckily the American Sociological Association held its annual conference in Manhattan this August. The theme was ‘Interrogating Inquality’. Playing to this theme Ashley Mears of Boston University had organised a panel session on the sociology of appearance.
Along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’d been asked to present on the ‘dark side’ of aesthetic labour – ‘lookism’. Lookism is discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Or as Ayto bluntly states, ‘uglies are done down and beautiful people get all the breaks’. According to Tietje and Cresap, the term was first used in print by the Washington Post in the late 1970s. For us the issue is inequalities in access to employment based on prescribed and proscribed looks. I finished reading through my presentation notes as my plane touched down in Newark. As it taxied to the apron, I found myself wondering, Carry Bradshaw style, if the uglies are being put down, who or what decides who is good looking or at least has the right look?
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.