Customer-Related Social Stressors and Emotional Exhaustion: The Mediating Role of Surface and Deep Acting

By Song, Guoping; Liu, Haihua | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, November 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Customer-Related Social Stressors and Emotional Exhaustion: The Mediating Role of Surface and Deep Acting


Song, Guoping, Liu, Haihua, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


The role of surface acting and deep acting in mediating the relationship between customer-related social stressors (CSS) and emotional exhaustion were examined in this study. Employees (N = 310) working in the call-center industry were surveyed. Data were analyzed using structural equation modeling. Results showed that two CSS components; disproportionate customer expectation and customer verbal aggression, were positively related to emotional exhaustion, and that surface acting fully mediated the relationship between disproportionate customer expectation and emotional exhaustion. Both theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Keywords: customer-related social stressors, emotional exhaustion, surface acting, deep acting.

Social interaction with customers is a critical component of me work and employees' everyday experience in the service industry (Dormami & Zapf, 2004). Social interaction serves not only as a required means to fulfill the obligation of providing service to the customer (Barger & Grandey, 2006; Grandey, 2003), but also involves the employee with resource gains, such as self-efficacy (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002) and recognition of social skills (Zapf, 2002). However, social interaction with customers has its downside for employees and can be considered as a stress-related construct. It has been studied as the source of chronic stress outcomes, including burnout (Dormann & Zapf, 2004; Grandey, Kern, & Frone, 2007).

A body of literature has had as its focus the topic of stress elicited in social interaction between customers and employees. According to a review by Lee and Ashforth (1996) and an empirical examination by Dormann and Zapf (2004), customer-related social stressors (CSS) are predictive of emotional exhaustion, the core dimension of job burnout. In the study by Dormann and Zapf, CSS were found to be positively related to emotional exhaustion. In another survey study it was found that customer verbal aggression reported by call-center employees was frequent and was positively related to those employees' emotional exhaustion (Ben-Zur & Yagil, 2005; Grandey, Dickter, & Sin, 2004; Grandey et al., 2007).

One component of CSS is disproportionate customer expectation characterized by the employee's feeling of unfairness. This feeling may arise in situations where customers try to take advantage of the employee's time or energy, demand services disproportionate to the cash value of the transaction, or ask the employee to do things which should be done by the customers themselves (Dormann & Zapf, 2004). Another CSS component is verbal aggression from customers, often labeled as a form of psychological antisocial behavior (Baron & Neuman, 1998). The quality of the relationship between customer and employee is unidirectional and is controlled to a large extent by the customer. In addition, certain rules regarding how employees must regulate their outward behavior to customers, that is, being polite and smiling no matter how they feel inwardly, confine the employee's reaction, but have no effect on the customer's reaction (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002; Hochschild, 1983).

Nevertheless, these authors knew of only a few studies in which the role of emotional labor in relation to CSS and emotional exhaustion (Dormann & Zapf, 2004; Goldberg & Grandey, 2007) has been examined. It is unclear whether or not emotional regulation tendencies, such as surface acting and deep acting, serve as the mediators between customer verbal aggression and emotional exhaustion. Surface acting refers to effortful modification of expressions, aimed at ensuring affective delivery prescribed by the service display rules. When this strategy is utilized, employee's inner feelings, which are likely to be negative toward the customer, are not changed. Deep acting refers to the strategy aimed at changing inner feelings to fully match both the emotional status and outward expressions with the requirements of the service rules (Grandey, 2000; Hochschild, 1983). …

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