Working in Retail as a Marginalized Person is a Constant Exercise of Emotional Labor

Home Culture and Entertainment Working in Retail as a Marginalized Person is a Constant Exercise of Emotional Labor

The overwhelming amount of emotional labor that is involved in working within retail or service industry positions is magnified for marginalized workers.

By Crissonna Tennison

Anyone who has ever worked in retail has at least one Bad Customer story. Mine occurred about one hour before the end of what had been a pretty good day. I was midway through straightening up the store to prepare for closing when a pair of customers came in blasting Taylor Swift on their phone.

I don’t like confrontation, but we already had music playing in the store, and the sound of Swift rapping about her reputation through a low-quality phone speaker could have been disruptive to other customers (it certainly was for me). After a minute of gathering the energy, I walked up to them and politely asked them to turn off the song. They turned down the volume as I walked away, but left the music playing. I continued to straighten merchandise, hoping they would leave quickly so I wouldn’t have to talk to them again.

Unfortunately, my luck for that day had run out. The customers grabbed literal heaps of clothes to try on, dumping them on the front counter near the register while one of them took three items into the dressing room at a time, the only store policy I successfully got them to follow. Minutes before closing time, they sorted the clothes into “yes,” “no” and “maybe” piles while I rang up another customer. In their disarray, they knocked a stack of business cards onto the floor. Instead of picking up the cards, one of them followed a half-hearted apology with, “It’s okay, I did you a favor.”

The villains felt empowered to act this way because Western consumer culture privileges customer perceptions over those of employees. “The customer is always right” is a term that grumpy bosses and grumpier soccer moms have been slinging around since the early twentieth century, when department store tycoons Marshall Field and Henry Selfridge developed the term to promise their customers a quality retail experience—or, more specifically, an experience that meets each individual’s wildly different definition of “quality.”

But it is unlikely that Field, Selfridge, or any other powerful retail executives from the twentieth century until today have ever had to deal with the reality of what such a mandate means for daily business interactions. That honor belongs to retail workers, the folks whose bodies constitute the frontlines of modern consumer culture.


Since consumers—the people with money to spend—have been empowered to judge the quality of each transaction, there is no social code for how they are expected to act. Retail employees, meanwhile, must live up to the unwieldy promises made by their bosses. Among other things, this requires them to display the emotions that customers expect them to display, even or especially when those do not match their internal realities, which is a basic form of emotional labor.

The resulting power imbalance leaves employees vulnerable to mistreatment. For every friendly, low-drama customer that walks through a business’ door, there’s another who derives personal satisfaction from the fact that employees literally have no choice but to be nice to them. Some customers will take advantage of this circumstance by asking invasive questions, openly ogling or flirting, interrupting other customer interactions, arguing with store policies, applying personal nicknames without permission, making passive-aggressive or condescending comments, and leaving behind large messes.

Employees who want to keep their job had better not respond in kind, even when it is warranted. For anywhere from five to ten hours a day (including weekends and holidays), employees’ needs not only don’t matter; they may be a job liability, as well as an affront to others.

In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild created the term “emotive dissonance” to articulate the tension between authentic emotional realities and required social expressions. Subsequent research by scholars such as Blake Ashworth and Ronald Humphrey have confirmed that emotive dissonance leads to a decrease in well-being because it increases self-alienation among employees.  

This is particularly true for workers with marginalized identities. People who don’t receive cultural, political or personal support have to affirm and validate their own internal realities as a matter of survival. While going into a trance-like, process-driven state may make it easier to get through a shift, it separates individuals from emotional truths that are necessary for fomenting meaningful change in an unkind world.


As a biracial Black bisexual woman, I must struggle every day to convince myself that my voice is valuable in Black queer spaces as well as heteropatriarchal society at large. My efforts are undermined when I am obliged to greet yet another customer who ignores me, dodge passive-aggressive comments about store policies I didn’t create or field skeptical questions about my product knowledge based on assumptions of what my life experience must be.

It is bad enough that visibly queer, trans, disabled, and full-figured folks, as well as women and people of color, are more likely to receive disrespectful treatment from customers with conscious or subconscious biases. But customer-first policies explicitly articulate a reality that already exists in literally every other facet of life for folks who don’t fit into cisgender white heteropatriarchy: their humanity is an obstacle that must be set aside to make things easier for everybody else.

I can hear Field and Selfridge’s ideological descendants now, flippantly telling me to get another job. But many people who work in retail do so because of a lack of viable alternatives. Besides, I am not the problem. Social scripts sometimes play the role of streamlining basic processes, a necessity in today’s busy culture. But when they perpetuate negative messages, such as the superiority of one group’s perceptions over another’s, they must be revised.

Managers can facilitate this by empowering employees to defend themselves, offering support when they choose to do so, and reorienting customer expectations. Until then, customers can use the power they have now to improve conditions by treating workers as humans, with respect and empathy.



Author Bio: Crissonna Tennison is a recent UCLA English Department graduate who is interested in social justice issues. She lives in Southern California with her imaginary dog. Follow her on Twitter at @cjtennison.


Featured Image: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash