Surface Acting

Why do some people always seem so happy?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.” But is that actually sound advice? Anyone who has been at a social event with a fake smile plastered on their face for hours knows how exhausting “faking it” can be. Trying to act positive and happy when you actually feel tired and moody is absolutely grueling.

Simply “painting on” a positive smile that is incongruent with your underlying emotional state is dangerous. This tactic is known as surface acting. Research shows that surface acting in the workplace is associated with a host of negative personal outcomes such as decreased job satisfaction and burnout (Grandey, 2000).

But at least putting on a fake smile is beneficial to the organization right? Not so fast. The same study showed that surface acting led to decreased job performance and withdrawal behavior—both negative organizational outcomes. So even as an employee is making a personal sacrifice for the organization by putting on a positive face, they’re still hurting the company.

Surface acting is particularly harmful because it causes emotional dissonance—the discrepancy between what you actually feel and what you outwardly express. Emotional dissonance is associated with emotional exhaustion (Morris & Feldman, 2007), which in turn leads to negative personal and occupational outcomes (Grandey, 2003).

In some jobs, such as those that require direct interaction with customers, playing the role of a cheerful and positive employee is a job requirement. So how do you maintain that outward appearance without resorting to surface acting? The key lies in emotional regulation, and in a technique known as deep acting.

Imagine a store clerk dealing with an angry customer who wants a refund on a TV that he dropped on the ground. The clerk has two options: (1) plaster on a thinly veiled sympathetic smile (surface acting) or (2) try to put himself in the customer’s shoes and feel genuine empathy for their situation. The latter option is known as deep acting and is a much healthier solution. While surface acting is more of a Band-Aid solution, deep acting solves the underlying issue by managing your primary emotions.

To flesh out specific deep acting techniques that you can use, let's use the example of Sarah, a Disneyland employee who works as Snow White. It’s her job to act cheerful and enthusiastic to Disneyland customers for hours on end—a strenuous task. If Sarah is having a rough day, how can she manage her underlying emotions to act happy?

One technique Sarah could use is to try and reinterpret the situation. Instead of perceiving each interaction as another exhausting job requirement, Sarah could change her frame of mind. Each interaction with a child could be an opportunity to make their dreams come true. This is called reappraisal and is an effective way to manage emotions (Lazarus, 1991).

A second technique involves recalling events that bring the necessary emotions to the surface. For example, Sarah could think about something that makes her laugh, or whistle her favorite upbeat song in between interactions. In doing so, Sarah focuses her energy on something positive, which makes her feel genuinely happier. This technique is known as attentional deployment, and is an easy trick to help oneself feel the required emotion.

So, next time you need to act positive but just don’t feel like it, don’t plaster on that fake smile. Instead, remember these two techniques, reappraisal and attentional deployment, and you’ll be feeling genuinely cheery in no time.

References

Grandey, A. A. (2000). Emotion regulation in the workplace: A new way to conceptualize emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 1, 95-110.

Grandey, A. A. (2003). When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery. Academy of Management Journal, 46(1), 86-96

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46, 819-834.

Morris, J. A., & Feldman, D. C. (1997). Managing emotions in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Issues, 9, 257-274.