Lyft, Ridesharing, and Emotional Labor

by Zach Cunningham

Lyft_logo“No, that waitress isn’t flirting with you.  Neither is the barista at your local Starbucks, nor the counter server at the Pret A Manger near your office, and you might be surprised to learn that the stripper at your local club doesn’t have a deep fondness for you, either.”

Last February Sarah Jaffe wrote these words in a piece at In These Times discussing the prevalence of “emotional labor” in the highly-gendered service sector.  In a nutshell, emotional labor is when workers are required to frequently regulate their emotions as a condition of employment.  This goes much deeper than the simple alterations in behavior we all face from time to time in the workplace.  In service jobs – waiting tables, stewarding airplanes, and the like – employees must fake happiness throughout the entire day.

“A Starbucks barista’s job is more than just serving coffee,” writes Ned Resnikoff for MSNBC.  “She also needs to be polite, even friendly to customers.”  In her piece, Sarah Jaffe also stresses this point, writing, “Pretending to love one’s work, to be overjoyed by the ability to serve you coffee or pizza or dance for your tips, is an integral part of the job for service workers.”

“Such a trend might seem rather benign, given how much we’ve come to value customer service from clerks and restaurant workers,” Resnikoff continues.  “But should a person’s livelihood really hinge on her ability to pretend that she loves her job?”  I would answer this question with a resounding “no,” which is exactly why I found such discomfort in a recent commercial interaction.

After finishing my first semester of graduate school late last month, I returned home to Indiana to spend some long-overdue time with my loved ones.  Two nights ago a few friends and I were hoping to go out for the evening in Indianapolis.  Usually such an outing wouldn’t pose any issues, but this time we faced a bit of a transportation quandary.  Public transit is virtually nonexistent in the city, and a snowstorm was about to hit that made both driving and walking seem undesirable.

Before long one of my friends suggested we use Lyft.  I had never heard of Lyft, but I came to find out that it is a private ridesharing company operating in nearly 20 cities, including Indianapolis.  Billing itself as “your friend with a car,” Lyft allows customers to request a ride from one of its many drivers using a mobile app.  Ridesharing programs like Lyft avoid many of the regulations that traditional taxi services face, and its fleet of drivers transports customers with their own vehicles.  Lyft also happens to regulate its drivers’ emotions in ways that escape the cursory glance of most customers.

The pseudo-libertarians behind Lyft describe the work their drivers do in a way that borders on delusional.  “We try to find aspirational, friendly people, and when you take a ride with a person, you think ‘Hey, that could be me,’” said Lyft co-founder John Zimmer in an interview with TechCrunch.  Drew Olanoff, the author of the TechCrunch piece, argues that Lyft’s “approach makes complete sense.”  “We’ve all had experiences,” he writes, “where we’ve picked up a friend or two at the last minute.”  Later in the piece, Olanoff cheerfully states that the drivers are “making money doing something they like, and they get to meet cool people.”

Both of our drivers that evening exemplified the friendly atmosphere that Lyft hopes to create.  When we entered the car — marked with Lyft’s signature pink mustache – everything seemed perfect.  Not only did both drivers greet us with a fist bump, but they were also friendly and affable conversationalists, offering up witty anecdotes from their respective pasts in an attempt to connect with us.

But herein lies the problem.  These drivers weren’t my buddies.  They weren’t picking me up as a personal favor.  They may have even, dare I say, found me to be uncool.  They were picking me up for one very simple reason: they were trying to earn a living.  It is only after accepting this fact that one starts to realize how much Lyft reflects the ugly side of emotional exploitation in our service economy.

First, let’s return to the fist bump greeting.  After doing a little reading, I found out that this is a mandated part of the job.  “They officially train us to do it,” wrote a Los Angeles Lyft driver on Reddit last year.  From the very moment passengers enter the car, their social interactions with the drivers are regulated.

This example may seem “benign,” to use Resnikoff’s language, but it is only the beginning.  Much like other service jobs, the whims of individual customers largely shape the driver’s ability to make money.  After exiting the cab, my friends and I were asked to rank the drivers on a one-to-five scale using Lyft’s mobile app.  In other words, if the drivers wanted more customers in the future – and if they wanted a decent “donation,” which I will discuss in a bit – they had better leave a good impression on me.  “‘Service with a smile’ is expected from anyone who deals with customers,” writes Jaffe, “and . . . sometimes low-wage service employers require much more.”

Jaffe’s mention of low wages brings me to my next point.  While Lyft drivers are given a base pay, much of their money comes from a “donation” system.  Lyft does not have a traditional fare structure.  Rather, riders are asked “donate” to the driver.  This structure bears resemblance to the myriad times I have voluntarily pitched in a few bucks for a friend’s gas money when he or she got stuck driving on a night out.  Also similar to the gas money example is the fact that I never actually had to pay my friends.  Lyft riders are not required to donate to drivers, making the feigned emotional connection with passengers all the more critical in securing tips.

It is worth noting that drivers also rank passengers.  However, it is silly to think that the negative consequences of a passenger’s bad ranking compare to those of the driver.  If a passenger is “blacklisted” by a bad ranking – a possibility put forward by the driver in Los Angeles – they can find another mode of transportation.  If a driver receives a bad ranking, the consequences seem pretty obvious.

There are a number of issues with ridesharing programs like Lyft.  As Darwin Bond-Graham points out in an AlterNet piece from earlier this year, “ridesharing companies encourage unregulated, hyper-privatized transactions among precarious laborers.”  But they also encourage the hyper-regulation of workers’ emotions found in myriad other industries.  Next time you use one of these services, please remember that a breach of decorum isn’t a personal affront, and that these drivers aren’t giving you a lift because they are your buddy.  They are doing it because they need to survive.

Zach Cunningham is a  first-year Master’s student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  In 2008, he worked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from Indiana University in 2010 he taught high school in Arkansas and participated in the City University of New York’s Union Semester program.  He  blogs at I Hear Them All.

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3 Responses

  1. Loved the article – and I’m not paid to say that!

    Mandating that workers be obsequious to customers is a standard element in all capitalist customer relationships. As customers, we are always right, and as employees, we must always be humble. Why? Because both policies increase the employer’s sales.

    As a noted 19th century economist / activist put it: “The ruling values of a society are the values of the ruling class.”

  2. Try sidecar……same as lyft and uberx…….I think sidecar is awesome! BETTER, FASTER, CHEAPER than a cab. Use my code “MaybeMike” for $10 off 1st ride.

    PS….I’m a sidecar driver and actually don’t fake my emotions while driving. I truly enjoy meeting random people and having a chat while driving. It’s like a deeper people watching experience!

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