Psychology Faculty Research


Surface Acting in Service: A Two-Context Examination of Customer Power and Politeness

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-2015


To date, the role of employee perceptions of customers has largely been overlooked in the emotional labor literature, particularly in the area of customer power. In two studies, we first examined the relationships between perceptions of the customer (i.e. power and politeness), surface acting and job-related outcomes in a typical service context (a department store; Study 1) and then explored the generalizability of these findings to a health care service context (a nursing home; Study 2), in which customer–employee relationships, the emotional climate and customer behavior norms differ substantially. Survey results indicate that for department store employees, perceiving customers as having higher power was associated with more reported surface acting and that certain negative effects of surface acting were exacerbated by interacting with impolite customers. These results were not replicated in our sample of nursing home employees. Our research suggests that customer-related variables have an impact on surface acting strategies, both in terms of usage and its relationship to job-related outcomes in certain service contexts. Divergent findings across our two studies suggest that different service contexts may require different assumptions regarding surface acting, customer perceptions and outcomes.

Publication Title

Human Relations





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