The Contagion of Emotions: working the magic in the pandemic


The movie ‘Contagion’ should have given us a clue as to what was to come. Unfortunately, it was just another Hollywood movie for us—at least, a vast majority of us. And then, just before the presents and decorations of the New Year festivities had been stowed away, we were hit with a real-life Contagion. COVID-19 caught the whole world as such a bad time, that no individual or country was best prepared to deal with it.

As it is with all contagions, their real power lies in their power to move from one host to another at such a rapid rate. The rate of spread is what differentiates one contagion from another. An additional factor that makes one contagion worse than the next is the ability of the virus to kill its host or to reside in that host without killing it. With the combination of spread and death of host, we have the successful viruses like the one responsible for common cold which does not kill its host so has been around for ages. And then there are the unsuccessful ones like the Ebola virus, which decimates its host so rapidly that its spread can be curbed quickly.

This is why this particular novel Corona virus seems so formidable an enemy. Its ability to easily jump from one host to the other while at the same time killing its hosts is quite unprecedented. We pray our capable scientists, doctors, nurses and all front liners will help stop this deadly virus in its track. Contagions, as we are experiencing, can be very deadly when the hit.

Thankfully, not all contagions are that evil. There are contagions that can make us feel better—like the contagion of emotion. Yes, emotions are also contagions, in the realest sense of the word—and like every other contagion, they can be transmitted from one host to another. Emotional contagion is said to be that phenomenon whereby an individual’s emotions and related behaviours are able to trigger similar emotions and behaviours in others. A more scientific definition is:

“the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronise expressions, vocalisations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”

It is almost a requirement of every customer-facing job that positive emotions are expressed in encounters with customers. There is enough evidence that when customer service employees (CSEs) transmit positive emotions, customers are able to catch those emotions. And when customers are in a positive mood, they tend to do positive things. In other words, happy CSEs make happy customers and happy customers make the service experience happier—for both the employee and the customer. It is a total win-win for everyone involved.

As a matter of fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Service Research, titled “Emotion Cycles in Services: Emotional Contagion and Emotional Labor Effects”, indicated that there is an emotion cycle that develops during service delivery. Three researchers from China, Taiwan and USA gathered data from a large chain of foot massage parlours located in Beijing, China.

Pairing more than two hundred foot massage therapists and their customers, the researchers discovered that when customers came into the experience with positive emotions, employees become positively affected and thereby were also very positive during the experience. The positive emotions of the employee then ‘infected’customers who report positive emotions after the experience. Additionally, the study also found out that when employees applied emotional labour, i.e. regulating their emotions appropriately, customer emotions are affected accordingly.

This is where the twin methods of regulating one’s emotions, Deep Acting and Surface Acting, comes to play. With Surface Acting, CSEs just has to behave “as if” they are really feeling happy. They can attempt to put up a smiling look to create the impression that they are really. But like I have written quite often in this column, these fake attempts can easily be detected. Deep Acting is the way to go, especially during this tense COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of all the challenges we are facing during this period, there is always that one thing that can put a smile on an individual’s face.

Interestingly, the study found that Deep Acting had a way of preventing the transmission of negative emotions from one person to the other. Surface Acting, on the other hand, facilitated the transfer of negative emotions. In other words, when a CSE fakes happiness, it actually triggers an opposite reaction. Customers get irritated when they realise the employee is not being genuine.

An earlier study carried out in 2002 on the same subject but on its effect on group behaviour came up with some interesting results. Titled “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior”, the study was published in the December 2002 edition of the Administrative Science Quarterly. As expected when there were positive emotions affecting a group, the group exhibited greater cooperation, decreased conflict and increased perceived task performance.

How can CSEs transmit positive emotional contagion during this season? It is true that there is the proverbial darkness all over the land. At the time of writing this piece, people are still very apprehensive about the future. Parents are understandably worried about the children’s education. Employers are worried about the effect of the pandemic on their businesses. Employees are worried about the safety of their jobs. There is so much uncertainty in the air. However, within this same air of despondency, I believe, there is still much to be positive about.

Starting with the fact that we still have life. The death rates are simply staggering (As at the writing of this article the global death toll was close to 180,000). This virus is killing just about anyone—young, old, white, black, yellow, brown, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, never-travelled-before and the globetrotter. So when we get to go to bed every day and see the light of another morning, we have cause to be positive.

Another reason why we can and should remain positive is that the rate of infections and deaths in this country could have been worse. (Currently, total confirmed infections globally top 2,500,000). With the figures coming from other countries who have better health facilities, we have to be thankful that our numbers are not too overwhelming. Therefore, we can still be relatively positive about our condition as a country.

I also believe that anyone who still has a job during (and after) this pandemic is over has a lot to be positive over. Many jobs have been lost and many more are going to be lost. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 24.7 million jobs are estimated to be lost globally. Some companies are going to have to fold up and even those who manage to survive will need to make some adjustments that will affect so many people.

The world, as we know it, might never be the same again. We might all have to make some adjustments in our lives from now onwards. We might have to wear face masks for as long as is proper. Social distancing might become a norm. We might have to wash our hands and use hand sanitizers any and every time we visit a shop, supermarket, an office, etc. Our body temperatures will be checked whenever we visit certain establishments. Life is set to get interesting. However, the truth about life is that every cloud truly has a silver lining. It is all a matter of attitude. We can choose to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

We live in a day and time where we need lots of positive emotions. The level of uncertainty, frustration and desperation around is enough to depress even the heartiest among us. We need to start transmitting lots of emotional contagion. There never has been a bigger need for positivity in our communities. If for nothing at all, we need to counter the negativity in the air. As front line staff, it is part of the job of CSEs to spread good cheer with every customer interaction. With every interaction, the CSE has the opportunity to assure customers that everything is going to be just fine.

We have a deadly contagion on our hands that we have defeat at all costs. We need all hands on deck to pull this off. Front line staff are doing their best to even be going to work during this pandemic. We appreciate their efforts but once they get there, there is a need for them to transmit the right emotions to all customers.

There is science backing the fact that positive emotions have medical usefulness.  A 2003 study involving three hundred and thirty-four healthy volunteers aged 18 to 54 years attempted to find out if positive emotions had an effect on an individual’s susceptibility to being infected with viruses. This interesting study concluded that the tendency to experience positive emotions was associated with greater resistance to objectively verifiable colds.

I find it more interesting that the researchers particularly chose to investigate the effect of emotions on a viral contagion like the common cold. The current contagion we are dealing with is also caused by a virus and so if maintaining a positive attitude has a power to create resistance to one virus, what shows that it cannot create resistance to another virus? You never know.

So maybe in addition, to washing our hands with soap and water, practicing social distancing and staying at home, maybe—just maybe—we should do all this while feeling good about everything. That could work magic in this pandemic.

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