Someone called me up this morning – from a recruitment agency. (I work contracts so I get a lot of such calls). She started off with “are you well today”? This is a growing trend. I called an agency which deals with certain aspects of my accounts the other day and the first question was also about my emotional state.
This is an example of what the sociologist Frank Furedi calls Therapy Culture.  Prioritising the emotions in everyday life. Turning every encounter into an emotional one. And, as he notes, this culture is not about deeper feelings or more sensitivity but, rather, acts to create a culture in which feelings are trivialised. We ‘feel’ more but those feelings are increasingly shallow.
While Furedi is a brilliant analyst of the phenomenon he does’t really understand the forces which are driving this cultural shift. This is because he lacks an analysis of power. There are two forces at work here. One is a political force. The population are trivialised and dumbed down to make them more malleable and more gullible. (Remember, children, it is a ‘big choice’ election). All this is done in the name of ‘accessibility’ and ‘democracy’. As the poet Geoffrey Hill pointed out however, democracy is not served by removing all effort of understanding and thinking. The political class rules a dumbed down population who are constantly encouraged to ‘feel’ – but not think. The other force is commercial. The forces of marketing – whose job it is to stimulate consumption of the surplus products of the over-heated capitalist economies – work therapy culture. Advertising has moved into a new phase. No longer does it work with status aspirations, sex and persuasion. Now it seeks to engage people at the level of their trivialised emotions. An advert on the side of a London bus (for something or other) tries to colonise peoples’ emotions around achievement. The message is ‘buy this product’ and ‘get that mini fist-pump feeling’. This is emotional advertising; ‘engaging’ people at an ’emotional’ level. People are schooled for all this by ‘circle-time’ at school. It is not permitted not to ‘share’ one’s feelings. But this incessant and public ‘sharing’ destroys authentic feelings which may be private and rarely shared.
So. Back to ‘are you well?’. I’ve never spoken with this person in my life before. She is calling me about the possibility of a computer job. What, essentially, do my feelings have to do with it? (At least at this stage – where all she needs to do is ask me something like ‘would you be interested in a web developer role using skills x,y and z in location B?’). This is precisely, prioritising the emotions. A question which is really a simple factual one has to be answered on the ’emotional’ plane. But – is she really interested in how I am today? What if I were to answer truthfully; “well, I’m feeling a little sad because yesterday I accidentally hurt the feelings of someone I care about and also I’m a bit worried and anxious about one or two things I have coming up in my life”? Would she really be interested? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. She would be; but then, the conversation would take a different direction and have nothing at all to do with the contract IT role which she was proposing. This gives the lie to her question. She isn’t really interested in if I ‘am well today’. The only possible answer, were I to give it, would be one which trivialised my own emotional states. I could say “Yes, I’m fine” – thus devaluing my own feelings. The truth is the opposite of that implied by the actual practice of therapy culture. The truth is that a certain reticence and discretion about feelings, that is allowing people to have a private space which is not automatically shared, is about respect for feelings.
In fact there are far more egregious examples. I booked a holiday a while ago and then received an email from the travel agent with the heading “much excited, Justin?”. I am supposed to instantly fall into a gushing naive state of emotional bubbliness. The agency’s marketing department were trying to colonise my feelings of excitement, (which of course I felt prior to a holiday), and use that as a lever to turn me into a repeat customer. This particular travel agency does focus on the student market. But even so – isn’t this a language suitable for 5 year olds, not 21 year olds?
In the name of some kind of liberation of the emotions the exact opposite is taking place.
1. Frank Furedi. Therapy Culture. Routledge 2003.