The case for being grumpy at work

Art by Ariel Costa for Quartz
Art by Ariel Costa for Quartz
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On my birthday this year, my coworkers planned an elaborate surprise. When I came into work, several dozen colleagues had dressed up as me, donning my trademark accessories: a flannel shirt, a baseball cap—and a scowl.

There are two takeaways from this anecdote. The first is that I have truly thoughtful and quirky colleagues. The second is that my habitually grumpy demeanor is so noticeable in the workplace that it has become a hallmark of my persona.

Part of me is a little bit embarrassed by this. After all, I grew up, like so many junior employees, understanding that the way to get and keep a good job was through hard work and unflappable politeness. I can’t remember who first expressed the idea that I should endeavor always to come to work with a smile, but it feels very much in keeping with a whole host of social mores that young people—especially women—are taught from an early age.

For several years, I bought into the idea that emotional honesty was a quality better left at home. But as my career progressed, and with it my self-confidence, I began to realize that holding in my true feelings was both exhausting and unnecessary. I’m not saying that people should be rude or mean to one another at work, of course. But I do feel that there is something sinister about the corporate cult of positivity.

Employers may think a room full of smiling employees is a sign of a productive, successful office. But research shows that forcing workers to appear more pleasant and more cheerful than they actually feel can lead to a whole host of negative consequences—from emotional exhaustion to withdrawal. And women in particular suffer from the expectation that they should constantly demonstrate happiness.

In 2017, there’s no reason for us to grin and bear it. For one thing, researchers from Munich’s Technische Universitaet have found that women were less likely to be promoted to management positions if they appeared too cheerful. (Welcome to another great example of the catch-22s that women face in the workplace every day.) And research has also shown that a pessimistic outlook can lead to higher productivity, fewer mistakes, and better communication skills. In other words: Grumpy workers of the world, unite.

The tyranny of workplace productivity

If it seems like your bosses have been inordinately preoccupied with you and your colleagues’ happiness lately, chances are you’re right. As English sociologist and economist William Davies reveals in his book The Happiness Industrythe modern obsession with workplace positivity is a relatively new phenomenon, spurred by research connecting workers’ productivity and their happiness. In this context, attempting to improve employees’ satisfaction seems like it ought to be a win-win for both workers and managers. But Davies explains that corporate happiness strategies can quickly backfire.

“The argument for promoting happiness at work has always been primarily about productivity,” he notes. “Employers seek various ways to boost employee morale and mood, or, if that fails, instruct them on how to behave in a happy way. I think this is more pronounced in America, where optimism and self-belief are almost moral obligations. But it’s not limited to the US.”

Depending on where you work, efforts to boost morale could include everything from offering office employees free ice cream on Fridays to instructing baristas to fake cheerfulness during their early-morning shifts. These shallow and manipulative pathways to happiness will almost certainly fail to make a difference in the long-term. But even the more sophisticated and well-intentioned efforts—like providing technology so workers can work from home easily—can dissolve the important distinctions between work and private life.

“I think a good balance can be struck where employers develop genuine sympathy and understanding for the non-work issues that employees face, recognizing that they have a life outside of work,” Davies says. “Employers should try to avoid reducing everything to productivity concerns, and to respect the division between work and life.”

Research also suggests being forced to fake happiness for long periods of time can cause physical and emotional health problems, from depression to cardiovascular conditions. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has spoken at length about the dangers of simply putting on a happy face every morning. Fighting negative emotions, or suppressing them, will not make us happier, she says. “People who focus on being happy actually, over time, become less happy,” David said recently. “To be clear, I’m not anti-happiness. It’s more that our happiness comes not as a goal, but as a byproduct of engaging in honesty with ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Dieter Zapf, the chairman of the work and organizational psychology department at the University of Frankfurt am Main, has conducted thousands of interviews of customer-service workers forced to hide their true emotions from customers. He found that faking your emotions continuously can lead to frustration, burnout, and even depression.

“We call this kind of faked emotion ‘emotional dissonance,'” Zapf noted in The BMJ, an international medical journal. “We found that the amount of time actually spent with customers was irrelevant when measuring stress, compared to the amount of time workers had to demonstrate emotional dissonance.”

Similarly, a study published in 2011 in the Academy of Management Journal concluded that faking a smile at work can worsen your mood and cause you to withdraw from your work. That study also noted that women who attempted to suppress their negativity felt even worse than men. According to the New York Times, the study authors speculated that this was because of cultural norms; because “women are socialized to be more emotionally expressive… hiding emotions may create more strain.”

Glowering through life and feeling fine

On the flip side, there are plenty of reasons to embrace grumpiness for grumpiness’s sake. Indeed, research suggests that while positivity may make us more productive, irritation and cynicism have plenty of benefits as well.

For one thing, feeling slightly down seems to make some people more attentive and detail-oriented in our thinking. Joseph Forgas is a professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales and an expert in the ways emotion can influence our cognition. His research suggests that communication and critical thinking skills can increase when your happiness levels decrease. (On a personal note: as an editor and writer, these are skills that matter a lot in my daily working life. Chalk another one up for grumpy journalists.)

Forgas says that the connection between irritation and attentiveness has evolutionary underpinnings.

“Negative mood operates as a mild alarm signal, informing us that we face a new, unfamiliar and potentially problematic situation, and so subconsciously produce a more attentive and focused thinking style,” he says. In other words, mild negative moods can lead to us being more observant, and paying more attention to detail.

Forgas notes that his definition of “mild negative mood” should be understood as the kinds of ”normal, everyday mood variations that we all experience several times in everyday life—slight changes in affective tone in response to what is happening around us.” Such changes in mood can be triggered by a variety of mundane things—Forgas mentioned the weather as an example. In the workplace, my grumpiness is typically a response to stressors like deadlines, but I’ve noticed that even an ill-advised dip into the Twitter cesspool can cause a subtle emotional shift.

Forgas’ research dovetails with experiments conducted by two University of California, Santa Barbara psychologists in 2007. That study concluded anger promoted analytic processing, and that angry people were more likely to discriminate between weak and strong arguments than people in a neutral mood. The study authors suggested that this was because irritation promoted an effective and analytic way of processing information.

Just as intriguing is the potential impact of grumpiness on creativity. Again, there is plenty of research connecting optimism to creativity. But researchers are also discovering that anger may push people to engage in out-of-the-box thinking. At least, that’s the theory put forth by Matthijs Baas, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam’s department of Work and Organizational Psychology.

Baas conducted a study in 2009 in which he prompted a group of volunteer students to get angry—and then tested their creativity using a special game. The angry team produced more ideas, and crucially, their ideas were also more original.

“Anger leads to more creativity (though perhaps only in small doses),” Baas explains. “This is because anger is stimulating and energizing.”

However, Baas also notes that the creative jolt provided by anger is not necessarily sustainable. “The experience of anger is relatively exhausting. Thus although angry people initially generate more creative ideas, their performance eventually leveled out.”

Smiling to make others feel better

The last piece of the grumpiness puzzle, for me, has always been related to gender. We see plenty of grumpy men in positions of authority–Jeff Bezos comes to mind. But women at the top—when they make it to the top—must walk a very fine line. Being seen as pushy or bitchy is a recipe for a swift fall—take former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who recently told Lena Dunham that people sometimes find her scary because she is… direct. Open ambition or the failure to adhere to conventional niceties is a privilege few female employees can afford.

Melissa Sloan, a sociology professor at University of South Florida, has conducted several studies looking at the ways women feel forced to regulate their outward emotions. Sloan’s research shows that women who suppress their true feelings often end up feeling much less happy; this outcome is even more likely when those female employees work in the interactive service industry or are women of color.

The idea that women (and sometimes men) must expend energy regulating their emotions in order to make those around them feel a certain way is called emotional labor. According to Ashley Mears, an associate professor of sociology at Boston University who studies the intersections of culture and markets, emotional labor was originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hoschild after studying the emotional management training required of flight attendants in the 1970s. The concept examines the ways companies can harness women’s emotions and presumed caring for others to make a profit.

While emotional labor was initially studied in relation to women in the service industry, it applies in varying degrees to women in all professions, notes Mears. The difference is that in white-collar professions, there tends to be less of a script that employees have to follow. Instead, Mears says, “it’s self-directed emotional labor. It could as well just be called the double work of womanhood—femininity makes two jobs out of one.”

The curmudgeon’s resistance

All workers (but women in particular) benefit when their emotional well-being is not being dictated by corporate overlords or being manipulated for company gain. But I also understand that when it comes to emotional honesty in the workplace, I’m really one of the lucky ones.

Like Melissa Sloan, Mears is quick to point out that the burden of emotional labor tends to be shouldered more heavily by people in the working class: ”Professional women can probably pull off being grumpy a lot more easily than service working women—part of that is the class privilege of being in the professions.”

Still, if I can’t beat the patriarchy outright, I might as well lean in to my curmudgeonly persona. Because no matter what former bosses have insinuated, forcing the corners of my mouth upward for extended periods of time has never made me better—or faster—at my job.