The answer to the question who has the right to be angry is provided with respect to the axis of gender and class. The participants with whom I did the fieldwork on which this piece is based interpreted the anger of rich women in terms of being hussy and selfish and the anger of poor women as masculinity.
“Sometimes when a lady answers the phone there happens to be a situation of “Your voice is so beautiful”, “What is your name? Can I learn your surname?” or “Are you married?” Or there are some others who mock us, I don’t know. You cannot understand what is going on, there are so many people calling. As long as there is no swearing, we cannot hang up the phone. They can speak nonsense, but we do not hang up.” (Call center employee, 30 years old, woman)
Call centers are today’s sweatshops, and for some people they are relatively safe and preferable workplaces “suitable for women”. Despite the increasing rates of automation, this line of business which is becoming more visible in the service sector where human labor is still more efficient and cheaper also draws attention with its intensive employment of women. We know very well that overall female employment in Turkey is rather low: according to the official numbers of Turkish Statistical Institute the employment rate in 2018 was 65.7% for men and 29.4% for women. However, in call centers the majority of employees are women. When the overall employment rate for women is so low, the reasons for employment of women in this sector can be interpreted in terms of the identification of work that is routinized, does not require extensive training, is low-paying, and has high circulation of employees, with women.
When we think of call centers, the other thing that comes to mind is emotional labor, that is, all sorts of activities a person does with the tone of voice, gestures, and mimics to create a specific state of emotion on others. Since the 1980s when the service sector’s share in the economy has begun to increase, it is seen that the ability to manage emotions and emotional intelligence has gained importance in business life (Özkaplan, 2009). This is because the understanding that the customer is always right requires the service sector employees to suppress any negative emotions and show positive emotions in their relations with the customers. The concept of emotional labor which is put forward in relation to the service sector in the US by Arlie Hochschild –who is known for her book The Second Shift which tackles the relationship between domestic labor and gender– is quite eye-opening, particularly for understanding the types of work that require close contact with customers and for which satisfaction is important. It is necessary to understand that emotional labor is a form of labor just like physical and mental labor and take into consideration the exhaustion, alienation, and burnout it brings about.
Women who are seen as superior in managing emotions “naturally” are found more inclined and oriented to (and are directed) towards care work and jobs that require direct communication with the customers/citizens such as flight attendant, nurse, and shop assistance (Hochschild 1983). Even though there is an equally high expectation of emotional labor from the female and male employees, we observe that employees’ experiences of emotional labor differ. Studies show that more women work in jobs that require emotional labor, the assumption that women are more inclined to such jobs by nature and the perception that sees women as more patient, caring, and understanding is reproduced (Kelan 2008; Gray 2010; Özkaplan 2009). However, in terms of stress and burnout caused by jobs, male employees are as negatively affected as female employees (Erickson & Ritter, 2001).
Emotions have long been neglected in social sciences except for the discipline of psychology. As the perception which sees society as consisting of individuals who think about their rational and personal interest has become dominant with modernity, emotion has been downgraded to a secondary importance. Emotions which are categorized as the other of thought in a binary logic are trivialized similar to those dichotomies of East-West, women-men, nature-culture (Lutz 1986). In today’s service sector, empathy, benevolence, passivity, and understanding, which are conceived as feminine characteristics, are expected to be highlighted and foregrounded, and anger which is coded as masculine is expected to be kept under control. At this point, the answer to the question who has the right to be angry is provided with respect to the axis of gender and class. The participants with whom I did the fieldwork on which this piece is based interpreted the anger of rich women in terms of being hussy and selfish and the anger of poor women as masculinity. The emotions of the citizens or customers calling the call center, just like the emotions of the employees, are coded within the framework of social norms and affect the mood of the employees. One of the participants stated that among those who call the municipality where she works, women are often more polite than men; however, she also added that women who ask for help are the exception:
“Women are not polite when it comes to asking for help. 90% of the citizens who call us and ask for help are women, and these women are kind of masculine. Majority of the citizens who call for social support or who come here are women. These women can change their language the second you say no. When they first call you, they say, ‘Madam X can you help me?’ and when you say no it all turns into ‘you are working for a municipality and the municipality does not subsidize people so you don’t do anything’. Things can take a different course in seconds.”
A: What do you mean by masculine?
K: They can be harsher. (Call center employee, 24 years old, woman)
Similarly, the interviews revealed that employees think that phone conversations with woman employers are generally more tense and upper-class women customers are capricious people with inflated egos.
As Butler (2004) stated, the phenomenon of gender is on the one hand surrounded by norms that are not constructed by the individuals and on the other hand gender is an area of continuous performance; that is, femininity(s) and masculinity(s) are constantly done and undone by our actions. Women employees state that they use strategies which are associated with masculinity such as speaking confidently in order to deal with aggressive and impatient male customers. Thus, instead of reproducing gender norms, they rather deconstruct it. When asked about the emotions that employees are expected to arouse in the customers, a participant who stated that male customers usually try to be dominant said the following:
“You are the one who knows more. When speaking you are obliged to make them feel this. If you hesitate then the one on the other end of the phone will suppress you. Also, there is the matter of tone of voice. You have to be more, I mean, if the other person shouts and if you keep your voice down then that person will try to dominate you. This is what I understood.” (Call center employee, 30 years old, woman)
However, we see that call center employees are not able to use such strategies in the long run, as they are expected to handle the customers with gloves and continue the conversation unless they are insulted. As seen in previous studies, people (mostly women) who are forced to remain in passive attitudes for long periods and who work in sectors in which the mentality of “customer is always right” reflect this passivity in their private lives and personal relationships in time. (Narlı and Akdemir 2019) This situation harms the empowering potential that women can gain by entering the working life.
The phenomenon of emotional labor that we observe in call centers, speaking in accordance with specific company patterns, and the responsibility to create positive emotions in the customers also affect male employees. Whereas the conversations between male employees and male customers are more aggressive and stressful and reflect hegemonic masculinity, the conversations with female customers often go smoothly. When asked whether the gender of the callers has an effect on communication, a participant provides the following answer:
“I mean, of course, there is a difference. For example, I act a bit softer when I am speaking with a woman, I try to be more helpful if the customer is a lady. If the customer is a man, I move forward by suppressing the tone of my voice. There is a difference between male and female customers as well. I am also kinder and gentler when I speak to a lady. When I am dealing with a man then I make the tone of my voice fuller and more reliable.” (Call center employee, 36 years old, man)
Speaking softly and gently with a female customer does not cause an erosion in male identity, but it is important to change one’s attitude or act more confident when dealing with a male customer since this is a power struggle: the weapon of the struggle is the tone of voice.
Emotional labor often makes the one who labors feel tired and exhausted, but sometimes, this labor form makes the one who is helping others happy and satisfied. Even though emotional labor is not a negative act in and of itself, it renders invisible and worthless the work done in sectors where the majority of employees are women. It reduces the labor of women to something which women do “naturally” and thus to “not being a job”. While call centers constitute a sector where employees continue to work side by side in congested and stuffy environments even during the pandemic with which the whole world is trying to deal, it is necessary to think about not only the physical conditions of the working environment in call centers but also the corrosiveness of emotional labor and the ways in which this form of labor reproduces gender norms.
Butler, J., 2004. Undoing gender. University of California Press.
Erickson, R.J. and Ritter, C., 2001. Emotional labor, burnout, and inauthenticity: Does gender matter?. Social Psychology Quarterly, pp.146-163.
Gray, B., 2010. Emotional labour, gender and professional stereotypes of emotional and physical contact, and personal perspectives on the emotional labour of nursing. Journal of Gender Studies, 19(4), pp.349-360.
Kelan, E.K., 2008. Emotions in a rational profession: The gendering of skills in ICT work. Gender, Work & Organization, 15(1), pp.49-71.
Narlı, N. and Akdemir, A., 2019. Female Emotional Labour in Turkish Call Centres: Smiling Voices Despite Low Job Satisfaction. Sociological Research Online, 24(3), pp.278-296.
Özkaplan, N., 2009. Duygusal emek ve kadın işi/erkek işi. Çalışma ve Toplum, 2(21), pp.15-23.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
 According to my observations, there are people from every educational level working in call centers. There are many employees who hold a BA or a higher degree from a university. What I mean when I say this line of work does not require extensive training is that it does not necessitate any specific qualification or skill. Usually, corporate training for a few days is deemed necessary by the employers.