The phrase “emotional labor” was new to me, but its practice is not. Emotional labor is that extra layer of effort expended to please, soothe, and accommodate others. Tacitly women’s work, it is the nine-to-five equivalent of dishes, dusting, childcare, eldercare, and, in traditional marriages, husband-coddling. Emotional labor is tossing aloe-softened tissues and Ricola cough drops over the cubicle wall when a coworker sneezes convulsively. Abandoning work to console an intern sobbing in the loo. Remembering birthdays, ordeals, and milestones; soothing worries, defusing conflicts, bolstering confidence, swallowing anger, staying cheerful, planning parties, rounding and retrieving the collection envelope then buying the present.
In our current culture, men who routinely take on such tasks risk seeming unctuous, weak, or bored with their real job. Women who do all this? All I remember noticing were the handful who refused.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild named the category forty years ago. How did I miss this? Too busy cleaning out the work fridge? In The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she focused on the service industry and other jobs that require tightly regulating one’s own emotions.
I was schooled in the art; still, adult life shot tips at me until I felt like a duck in a carnival booth. Rethink, reframe. Go to your happy place. Stare at some talisman of love or joy until you feel better. Breathe in lavender. Count to ten. Go for a walk. Do yoga. Light a candle. Smile until you feel happier. Repressing dark emotions and mustering sparkle is exhausting—and one more reason to resent powerful bosses who never bother. They spew rage when they feel like it, snap at people when stressed, take no time to arrange their features in a more pleasant and welcoming expression.
Hochschild divides emotional labor into surface acting and deep acting. In surface acting, you put on a happy face, fake compliance, read the cheery script while your real emotions gurgle like lava below the surface. In deep acting, you censor and modulate your internal feelings until they fit cozily inside the corporate culture. I find that prospect especially horrifying—yet research shows that faking pleasantry does even more damage to health and well-being than reforming one’s psyche.
I was lucky. I had the double luxury of fleeing the corporate world and avoiding the service industry. (I like people best when I have plenty of time alone to think about them.) But there was still plenty of emo labor to do—Hochschild’s definition expanded fast. Editing my own emotions was often obligatory, but so was setting my work aside to tend to others’ emotional lives.
Those hours go unpaid and unrecognized—and are, I would argue, essential. Emotional labor extends far beyond the workplace, in fact. It smooths the world’s acceleration, absorbs the shocks, repairs any damage. But because somewhere along the line we feminized it, we simultaneously devalued it.
Forty years after this was brought to the public’s attention, the gender gap has yet to close. More men are practicing, but they are still at the stage of being proud of themselves every time they pull it off (like me when I saw up tree limbs).
What would happen “if men were incentivized to be more empathetic and more giving—if emotional labor was associated with higher status,” wonders Rose Hackman, author of Emotional Labor. “A huge amount of neuroscientific research and psychology research shows that men are just as able to be good at emotional labor as women. It’s just that they don’t have the same kind of crack of the whip behind them.” They can take advantage of all that free labor women are conditioned to provide—as are, in different ways, others who are not heterosexual White men. “That invisible extraction of labor means that corporations continue to turn a huge profit,” she continues. “That means that governments and societies continue to exist without really anyone holding them accountable for the extractive coercive labor that they’re forcing on to women and people of color.”
The question is, how do we fix this? I try to imagine a boss saying gently, “Don’t worry, Mike had a heart-to-heart with her, and Simon is going to round up help with their family meals until she feels better. You just focus on your project.” Words that would be freeing in one sense, disappointing in another. Because once emotional labor becomes instinctive, you realize it draws you closer to other people, cements relationships, teaches you about life, and makes it easier to collaborate.
Divisions die hard when the slackers have no incentive to reform. But if workplaces call out emotional labor and dangle rewards, it becomes something extra, above and beyond, rather than a natural duty for all of us. Everyone should be doing emotional labor whenever necessary, in the same way that we roll up our sleeves or think through problems whenever necessary. Why create a special category for what ought to be instinctive compassion and care-taking? We do not acknowledge knowledge workers for using their brains or manual laborers for using their hands. Put emotional labor in a box, separated from other daily work, and we might just toss it back and forth like a hot potato, unwilling to scorch our hands.
Also: what goes in the box? Emotional labor is vague by necessity. Turn it into a trend, and it will sound silly, as comedian Leo Reich was quick to realize. He makes easy fun of the new fragility, talking about being “put under this insane pressure to do the emotional labor of knowing stuff about things.” Which deliberately misses the point.
Real emotional labor is not about fragility, just humanity. It does not make us snowflakes; it keeps us resilient. It should not require a false self, only a considerate one that refrains from inflicting its internal dissatisfactions on others. And if more of us did emotional labor, that extra compassion and thoughtfulness would become a lovely habit. The inequity would dissolve. The burden would lighten.
On the other hand, we could outsource all that listening, observing, party-planning, and pleasantry to AI, which has zero problems with emotional regulation. Humanity is a lot of work.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.