It’s not easy being nice. You may already know this if you supervise a maximum-security prison, traffic in humans or command a pirate ship, but what you may not know is that it’s actually bad for workers to be good to customers. This is especially true for workers who have to fake being nice to customers who don’t have to fake being jerks.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study of call centre employees who were forced to be nice to customers, no matter how rude the customers were.

This forced felicity leads to ‘emotional exhaustion’, and is a major factor in turnover, absenteeism, performance problems and loafing.

Emotional exhaustion is so bad that one researcher said there is “nothing worse than having service people who are just burned out on the job”. While we may argue that there are worse things than having service people who are burned out – having visioning consultants, for example, who aren’t burned out – anyone who has ever worked with difficult people knows just how hard it is.

Radio can be exhausting

I can personally testify to the difficulty of being nice to difficult people. I once had a job in public relations, where one of my responsibilities was to relate to the public about my client (see ‘pirate’ above).

This sometimes entailed talking to angry people on the phone, or worse, being on those awful call-in radio programmes, where I would have to be amiable and unflappable for long periods of time between commercials for storm windows and adjustable beds. Did I find the experience emotionally exhausting and did it lead to turnover, absenteeism, performance problems and loafing? Yes, pretty much (see ‘prison’ above).

A big problem with being nice to customers is that employees are forced to ‘suppress negative feelings’ and often end the call on a happy note, or better, by making a sale. The researchers noted that a lot of workers are given mirrors and they’re told to smile while they’re on the phone because their voices will sound happier. Is this what angry callers want?

Caller: The fruit basket I ordered from you didn’t arrive, you moron.
Forced Nice Person: Thank you for your call!
Caller: You also over-charged my credit card. What kind of idiots and crooks do you have down there?
Forced Nice Person: Let’s just see what we can do to fix that. Do you want to hear about our specials?
Caller: Do I want to hear about your [deleted] specials? Are you [deleted] kidding me?
Forced Nice Person: Let’s start by getting your order number. I’ll take that now if you’re ready.
Caller: If I’m ready? Let me tell you what I’m ready to do.
Forced Nice Person: Please spell your last name.
Caller: All right…G-O-T-O-H-E-L-L.
Forced Nice Person: Is that pronounced Goth-el?
Caller: You’re smiling at me, aren’t you, you [deleted]?

I don’t think smiling soothes angry callers. I think it just provokes them. I used to work with a woman I’ll call Monique. She was an angry, negative person. If she had been Secretary of State, we’d have been at war with all nations. I also used to work with a man I’ll call Bill. He was the epitome of the happy-go-lucky, not-a-worry-in-the-world person, and Monique made it her personal mission to try to get him angry. She began with minor annoyances, escalated to rudeness and finally resorted to simple verbal hostility. Nothing fazed him.

Finally, while on an office skiing trip, Monique took Bill’s skis off the roof of a van and slammed them on to the ground. Bill’s jaw clenched. His nostrils flared angrily. His hands balled into fists. Everyone grew silent and then Bill really let Monique have it. He stepped toward her, looked her in the eye and said: “Please be careful with my skis.” Bill later left our company. We always wondered if Monique’s incessant assaults had anything to do with it. Ironically, once Bill was gone, Monique lost her passion for work and, rumour has it, pursued another line of work. See ‘traffic in humans’ above