In recent years, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a greater shift towards virtual work. Workers now utilize a variety of communication modes such as video conferencing, email, and instant messaging to accomplish their tasks. However, there has been some difficulty in transitioning to virtual communication media. Both employees and customers report receiving emotionally inauthentic or insincere communication from organizational representatives. Which mode of communication should organizational members use to be seen as emotionally authentic?
SURFACE ACTING AND COMMUNICATION
Most occupations have strong expectations for how employees should show emotion in their roles. For example, customer service representatives are expected to appear happy, doctors are expected to display sadness for patient diagnoses, and managers are expected to show pride towards their subordinates. While these emotions are expected on the job, there are times when these employees do not experience the emotions they are expected to display. This creates a situation in which employees need to “fake” their emotions (e.g., smiling when they really feel angry). This “emotional faking” is called surface acting by organizational researchers. Surface acting has negative consequences at work because surface actors can come off as inauthentic to others. Given that employees must engage in surface acting at one time or another, what can they do to come off as authentic?
New research (Brodsky, 2020) suggests that the mode of communication that employees use may contribute to surface actors being perceived as emotionally authentic. The researcher conducted three separate studies to examine how the mode of communication affects perceived authenticity. In the first study, 519 full-time employees were randomly assigned to one of six conditions. In each condition, participants engaged in a negotiation simulation in which participants were tasked with selling a car for a predetermined price to an interested buyer. Participants were assigned to conditions in which the experimenter manipulated the emotions of the potential buyer. The potential buyer displayed actual anger, surface acting anger, or a neutral emotion. Participants received the offer from the potential buyer either via video or via audio, and the scripts were identical. This was intended to mimic a face-to-face or telephone interaction. After the participants engaged with the simulated buyer, participants were surveyed about the authenticity of the buyer. Results show that those who viewed the surface acting anger video found the potential buyer to be more inauthentic compared to those who viewed the actual anger video. However, this effect was not present for those in the audio only condition. These results suggest that face-to-face interactions may be particularly harmful for those engaging in surface acting.
EMAIL VS. PHONE VS. FACE-TO-FACE
In study two, the researcher conducted an experiment to explore which mode of communication is viewed as the most inauthentic: face-to-face, email, or telephone. In the experiment, participants played the role of a manager who was recently promoted. Participants each read a prompt with identical information. The prompt was a congratulatory letter from a much older colleague who worked in the same department. Depending on the research condition, the prompt noted that the coworker delivered the message face-to-face, via email, or via telephone. Results indicate that participants found email to be the least authentic mode of communication, followed by telephone, and participants found face-to-face interactions as the most authentic.
These results place surface actors in a perplexing situation, as results from study one indicate that face-to-face is the least desirable mode of communication for surface actors, while study two indicates that email and telephone are perceived to be more inauthentic compared to face-to-face.
Study three aimed to examine these effects in a more natural setting. The researcher surveyed 73 matched pairs of teachers and parents from schools in Vietnam. Results from the survey found that when “high surface acting” teachers used the telephone over emails or face-to-face interaction, the less inauthentic they appeared to parents. These results suggest that high surface actors may benefit when interacting more frequently over the telephone than other media.
This study demonstrates that when employees intend to communicate an emotion that they are actually feeling, it is best to utilize more personal communication forms such as face-to-face interactions. However, employees sometimes need to engage in surface acting, and when they do, this study suggests that they use communication modes that are less personal—such as the telephone. Organizations should therefore allow employees the option of using the telephone, rather than more popular vehicles such as email or face-to-face communication, as the latter modes may be interpreted as inauthentic.
Brodsky, A. (2020). Virtual surface acting in workplace interactions: Choosing the best technology to fit the task. Journal of Applied Psychology, advance online publication.