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A Stranger’s Touch


A massage at Janna Beauty Spa, in the West Village.  

Salon workers are hardly the first immigrants to find themselves in poorly paid, unsafe jobs, of course: It was true back when New York was a factory town, and it’s true today. Many abuses at nail salons are already illegal; addressing them means enforcing worker protections already in place—and getting the government to take the health of these workers seriously, far more of a long shot. (Chinese Staff has started a trial program at Bellevue to treat women for health problems, including severe rashes caused by manicure chemicals.) But if factory labor is primarily physical work, done in isolated sweatshops, the new salon jobs require an additional skill set. Performing beauty treatments means negotiating regular, if fleeting, contact with clients, exchanges at once intimate and detached—a fraught style of communication that requires a worker, immigrant or native, but almost always female, to navigate a complex sea of emotional etiquette.

An academic specialty within the field of economic sociology has emerged to address this new type of labor, catalyzed by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the twenty-year-old classic The Managed Heart. That book examined the lives of flight attendants and defined what she termed “emotional labor.” “It’s not enough to really seem to enjoy your clients,” she wrote in The Managed Heart. “For flight attendants, part of it is to enjoy your job: to like the people that you meet, to cultivate a friendship beyond the edge of professionalism. That is a tacit job skill.” Hochschild attempts to define what she calls “feeling rules”: the invisible laws that enable the worker to offer a sympathetic smile as a commodity. “When the manager gives her company his enthusiastic faith, when the airline stewardess gives her passengers her psyched-up but quasi-genuine reassuring warmth,” it’s what Hochschild labels “deep acting,” the ability to call up sincere, not merely theatrical, emotional states.

In her more recent volume of essays, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Hochschild explores what she calls “the intimate life in market times,” including the expansion of emotional labor within the household, such as that of migrant nannies and home-health-care aides. Salon work is distinct from these professions, which feature one-on-one relationships, built over time. But it has in common the necessity that a worker follow invisible “feeling rules,” even under duress.

Hochschild herself isn’t much for spa treatments, she tells me when I call her in California. “I confine myself to facials,” she says—everyone seems to draw her own line, whether waxer or economic sociologist. Jobs like this, she notes, “call on a whole range of new skills of how to relate to your clients. The new skill set is, ‘Oh, geez, how do I know when this is temporary and just a job from which I can feel alienated? When do I feel that this is a real person, and this is the real me talking?’ But what are we getting used to here? That is the real question.”

At 67, Hochschild has noticed the way these treatments have gone from being “a luxury to a tentative necessity; it’s a redefinition of needs.” And she wonders aloud about what all this means. “Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life, in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?” asks Hochschild. “Is there a subtraction, as well as an addition? That would be the question I would ask. Are the women who go to salons just not getting it anywhere, in which case, they’re getting it here? I think we all need a kind of a connection, we need to be touched. But that we’re getting touched for money, in a medicalized, spiritualized way, seems to me something as a culture we could be thinking about. I don’t want to go the route of moralizing this; I think it’s good to be touched, to relax, to be stress free. But it does seem like a symptom that something’s amiss that people actually pay for this.”

What exactly is required in these exchanges can vary depending on the demographics of the salon, according to Miliann Kang, whose 2003 article “The Managed Hand” in the academic journal Gender & Society examined three different Korean nail salons in Manhattan. In Kang’s observation, the wealthy white clientele of “Uptown Nails” sought out “pampering”: They wanted to feel catered to, with bonus services like creamy hand massages. At “Downtown Nails,” the African-American clientele was more concerned with expertise (reassurance that the designs were done skillfully) and respect (salon owners needed to reassure clients that they were part of the neighborhood, not interlopers). “Crosstown Nails” was a mani-pedi salon with a racially mixed clientele of working women: The labor could be physically exhausting, but the clients required only the most basic emotional services.

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