It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever worked in a customer-facing job that when you’re acting as the face of a business, you can’t exactly be yourself at work. Customer service work requires certain clothes (a uniform or, at least, adherence to some kind of dress code), a certain attitude (perpetually sunny), and a certain voice, all specially calibrated to be the perfect combination of professional and pleasing—something most people don’t aim for in their personal lives. The gulf between who workers actually are and who they have to be on the clock has become the subject of a TikTok trend, in which users switch off between their “real” or “normal” voice into their “customer service voice.”
“Finally, a TikTok trend that was made for me,” the videos begin. Users face the camera and speak frankly, like they would to a friend, before they pantomime an interaction they’re getting paid to have. “Hi, thank you so much for coming in today! How can I help you?”
Uptalk, frozen smiles, mechanically injected cheer and body language combine to form the customer service voice, designed to project interest. “I care about making sure you have the best experience [buying jeans/eating a bowl of $20 pasta/mailing a package/drinking a latte] possible,” the customer service voice says, even when the worker producing it feels exactly the opposite.
For Black and Latinx people in particular, the customer service voice clips also demonstrate the hefty helping of required code-switching, or the act of “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” An accent is dropped, soft consonants hardened, and suddenly sentences become a linguistic masterclass—because that’s what someone paying money for a good or service expects.
It makes sense that TikTok would become a hub for customer service commiseration. It is, famously, the app du jour for young people: According to a survey from GlobalWebIndex, 41 percent of all users are between the ages of 16 and 24. Per demographic research from Data USA, the bulk of the customer service workforce consists of people within the same age range.
Making fun of customers is also having a bit of a moment; before “Karen” was refusing to wear a mask at the grocery store, she was demanding to speak to the manager because somebody didn’t put her salad dressing on the side like she specifically requested. But it feels right to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the rhetorical bite of customer service workers, especially those drawn back into physical workspaces. Bartenders, servers, retail workers, receptionists, call center employees, baristas: They’re the “essential workers” nobody is clapping for on a nightly basis. Why shouldn’t they get to make fun of the performance they have to put on for their patrons, once they finally get home and get to relax?
The timing of the trend also feels in-sync with the season: With Thanksgiving a week away, and the Black Friday rush that’s bound to follow on the horizon, it’s an especially trying time for people whose job it is to help other people buy things; especially people made cranky by their family’s company, early morning wake-ups to snag the best deal possible, and all those pesky COVID-19 restrictions.
Jobs that require customer service will probably always, to a degree, require the customer service voice; it’s hard to imagine (under capitalism, anyway) bucking the idea that people paying for a good or service deserve simpering treatment just for their ability to do so. Luckily, as long as the customer-server dynamic exists, there will also be plenty of opportunities to poke fun at how grotesque and ridiculous the entire structure is.
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