He smiled and said all the right things but he knew internally that it was going to be a long day. Each customer brought a new complaint and somehow knew just what to say to push his buttons. I mean where did some of these people’s opinions come from? And, worse, why did they think he must surely agree with them? And, what kind of vibe was he giving off to attract so many simply crazy people? But he smiled, rang them up, and sent them on their way – always smiling and always asking polite questions. You must always be nice after all. And, he really didn’t have a choice – his boss required it.
Working with display rules
Display rules say that a certain image must be viewable to the client, customer, or student at all times – with some exceptions of course. Waiters, for example, are expected to be polite, smiling, chatty, and a host of other imperatives. Their job and their tip depend on meeting those display rule expectations. Teachers, bartenders, receptionists, consultants, and many other professions have definite display rules about the external face and behavior the person must show.
The display rules of many professions mean that we have a large group of people being routinely asked to present an external emotional image that may or may not match what they are feeling internally. They are being asked to act – but they aren’t trained actors often. And, untrained actors will often resort to surface acting. Surface acting is to pretend and to put on a mask. Many, many people use surface acting to get through a work day, gloss over the bad behavior of some rather difficult people, and to make it through a longer day relatively unscathed.
The problem though is that they actually aren’t making it through relatively unscathed. To only change the surface means burning through more emotional energy than we otherwise would and it takes considerably more effort to keep that external mask held up. Do this for 8 to 10 hours – sometimes longer – each day and you can see the emotional exhaustion quite clearly.
The most severe penalty for this forced niceness and using surface acting are the studies which show its link to an increased risk for depression, fatigue, somatic complaints, and other related health issues. It’s quite damaging and people do it, day-in and day-out, certainly feeling a lot of the physical and emotional costs but not quite fully understanding the impact that creating the mask is having on their long-term health.
Switching to method (deep) acting
We aren’t going to escape display rules in our professions. Customers aren’t going to go along with that. But, if we must act, we should act using the proper methods to ensure our inside face matches our outside face. It’s the disparity created by surface acting that causes the damage. The solution is to learn a better method of acting. And, in the research, we look to method or deep acting as the solution.
Method acting says that if we change our emotions on the inside, they will naturally radiate out. We are getting the inside and outside in sync, which means we burn through less emotional and cognitive energy as a result. This particular emotional regulation technique means that you are self-selecting and deliberately creating the needed mental state inside yourself. Or, in other words, it is healthier to go from the inside out rather than the outside in.
I'm not pretending to be happy, I actually am happy. I am not pretending to be helpful, I really am wanting to be helpful. I am not pretending to be anything. I am deciding to be what I need to be.
In a way, you could say that once you have made that internal shift, you actually aren’t even really acting after that point. You are just expressing what you are now actually feeling inside.
The customer doesn’t care either way
If you examine whether surface acting vs. method acting works better for the client experience – measured by looking at tips and perception studies – you’ll see no difference in either method. The customer or client is just looking for their display rule expectations to be met. Learning to switch from surface to method acting is really for the mental health and better emotional regulation ability of the worker. It’s about doing one of the self-care steps needed to avoid the effects of burn-out, fatigue, and depression
So how do I make the switch?
I will often recommend people go to Meisner and Stanislavski classes to learn the techniques. It’s worth it. Quite frankly, formal acting classes are of great benefit to anyone who has an externally-facing role in an organization. They teach a whole host of presentation, emotional regulation, and even emotional identification skills that people wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to be trained in.
Seasoned teachers will often have developed a teacher persona that they can call up when teaching classes. That teacher role comes with its own voice, demeanor, and way of behaving. By having that established identity be something that can be stepped into like an acting role, it can be relied on for days when a mood or energy level needs to be shifted to meet the display rules of the profession.
It should be said that we shouldn't be deliberately avoiding feeling difficult emotions altogether using these acting techniques. There are repercussions for denying or not letting ourselves fully feel what we need to feel. This is about a healthy way to select an emotion when we need to -- not about denying an emotion that needs to be felt and explored in order for our growth to occur.
In essence, when faced with display rules, method acting can be an excellent way to make the shift needed in a healthier way. You will be learning acting in order to not be acting. It’s an interesting notion and dichotomy but it’s the truth of the matter.
Learn to act so that you don’t have to act.
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