What is emotional labor?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Over the weekend a friend of mine went on a date with a guy who didn’t make much of an effort. She did most of the talking and asked a lot of the questions, so they could learn about each other. Later on she was telling me about it and I said “You did all the emotional labor, and he did none.” My friend hadn’t heard the phrase “emotional labor” before and asked me to send her some articles about it. I know a bunch of articles can be confusing to read through, so I decided to pull together a few quotes and links about it, so this blog post is for my friend.

In 2019, Hazel Cills wrote The Overuse of ‘Emotional Labor’ Turns All Relationships Into Work

When the term “emotional labor” was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, she described it as a burden placed on workers under capitalism. Workers might do physical labor, pushing carts, running machines, but they also often perform labor that “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in other.” This labor—smiling at customers, refraining from yelling at a rude patron because “the customer is always right”—is a labor of performance required to do these jobs. “Part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labor would show in an unseemly way,” Hochschild writes.

But the term “emotional labor” has strayed far from its roots as a useful definition for the expectation for workers to suppress or disguise their true emotions in the workplace, even in dire conditions. In the past few years, the concept of emotional labor has gone mainstream on social media and in articles that revive and expand the idea, with the term moving out of the workplace and insidiously into our homes. Suddenly emotional labor is being redefined as something people perform when they comfort their partners, when parents raise their children, and now something as simple as friendship is apparently emotional labor.

In 2013, Robin Hustle wrote What prostitutes and nurses and nannies have in common:

My longest stint as a care worker has been as a prostitute, but nearly every job I’ve ever held has involved what Arlie Russell Hochschild termed “emotional labor.” No one who’s known me as an escort, a nanny, or a waitress is surprised to see me going to nursing school; emotional labor gives the most back to me, despite whatever complications it brings up.

Hochschild defines emotional labor as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.” This is distinguished from “emotion work,” the private use of emotional self-manipulation, because emotional labor “is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value.” In emotional labor, a worker’s emotion is the commodity. Bartenders, therapists, child care workers and the like trade in emotions, and put their own private feelings on the line in the process. Emotional labor, like all work, takes its own peculiar tolls. In the world of commodified caring, the greatest risk to professional longevity is burnout, the stultifying feeling of not being able to keep up with the emotional demands of the job.

Women often end up with jobs where part of the job is managing people’s motions. Hustle shares this from her waitressing years:

Carrying plates from the kitchen to her tables is hard on a waitress’ feet but not on her feelings; the emotional labor waitresses do is in providing the experiences their customers want, knowing when they want to feel at home and when they want to feel adventurous, smiling and chatting them up just enough, never too much, and disarming aggressive, pushy, and needy customers with the right emotional response. At Fortune’s, my customers weren’t just the ones sitting at the tables; Fortune himself demanded a bizarre fidelity from me. Though I was hired as a waitress, most of the work I did at the restaurant was as a surrogate for the needs of Fortune and his family. He’d chastise me for baring too much flesh and then go in for a squeeze, and treated me to stories of his previous, unarranged marriage to an Irish-Californian woman, who unlike me shaved not only her armpits but also her “bikini area” after learning that Fortune shaved his by religious obligation. I was his unwilling confidante and would-be mistress, and he’d rage at me when he noticed me flirting with the group of older men who’d meet at the restaurant on occasion to flirt, drink, and tip heavily. Turning a light flirtation toward him was usually enough to make him back down.

In 2015, Tracy Moore wrote Is it Even Worthwhile to Teach Men to Value Emotional Labor?:

In an interesting piece at the Guardian, Rose Hackman digs into the cost of women absorbing most of the emotional labor required to make the world go round—the workplace kind (which includes conjuring and telegraphing the appropriate feelings for your customer-service type job, being pleasant at work, and doing all the menial shit workplaces tend to off-source onto women, like office housework) but also the interpersonal kind, like presenting as nice, caring, and genial, because as a woman, you’re supposed to be those things.

…And for another thing—even if women are better at feelings due to a lifetime of wallowing in them, as Jess Zimmerman lays out so poignantly in her essay about the hours and hours of agony aunt duty she’s filed in her lifetime—it’s still exhausting, time-consuming, and damaging. Zimmerman suggests possible compensation, only half joking:

Rather, women should get paid for all the work they typically do for free – all the affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance, tutorial, and weathering abuse that we spend energy on every single day. Imagine a menu of emotional labor: Acknowledge your thirsty posturing, $50. Pretend to find you fascinating, $100. Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150. Smile hollowly while you make a worse version of their joke, $200. Explain 101-level feminism to you like you’re five years old, $300. Listen to your rant about “bitches,” $infinity.

Kim Bosch, in 2018, did a book review of work by Gemma Hartley. Bosch was critical of Hartley, because Hartley attempted to expand the definition of “emotional labor” to such an extent that the phrase became meaningless. Bosch wrote:

Hartley’s expansive definition of “emotional labor” includes “emotion management and life management combined.” Neither term is explained or qualified. She quickly folds together the two sides of Hochschild’s original concept—emotion work (unpaid work in private life) and emotional labor (work done in a public paid capacity)—into one simplified term emotional labor, but also envelops “the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor” into her all-encompassing definition as well. Her apparent reasoning for creating this melting pot of terms is “to give readers a new lens through which they might see their own relationship dynamics more clearly.” Through this universality, however, Hartley not only participates in an “overextension” of Hochschild’s thesis and concept creep, but more importantly, sets up “emotional labor” as a catchall for what are various and complex gender obligations set out by patriarchy.

However, over time, words and phrases gain new meanings. Using “emotional labor” to refer to the work of keeping a relationship going has become common.

In 2019, Philippe Leonard Fradet wrote some advice for his fellow men and the way he is using the phrase “emotional labor” is representative of how everyone is using it nowadays.

What we often see in relationships, for example straight cis romantic and sexual relationships, is that men have a much harder time accepting the responsibilities of emotional labor in their relationships. I personally have struggled with taking on such responsibilities, as much of a sensitive person I perceive myself to be. Whether it’s complaining too much about issues at work (and by too much, I really mean too much), or shutting down when faced with emotional adversity, my fiancée ends up taking on that burden of my emotions in ways that she doesn’t put on me. And even though I’ve gotten better over the years, especially compared to our high school days, there’s still a lot of work for me to do in that arena.

This difficulty that men often have with emotional labor in their relationships mean that women and other partners are forced to take on its more burdensome aspects. That means they not only have to process their own feelings and thoughts as they apply to the relationship but that they also have to accept any issues within the relationship as their responsibility to fix.