As a college student, one of the biggest headaches I have ever experienced is jumping from one part-time job to the next. It is common knowledge most students rarely make the cut simply due to a lack of experience or an inflexible schedule. For me, it was both of these reasons that made job hunting such a tedious task. One form of employment, however, seemed to always be the exception: retail. They could never seem to have nearly enough employees, especially during certain seasons. What I believed to be mindless work turned out to be the most exhausting I had ever had, and I now know that is because of the emotional labor that accompanied such a job.
Emotional labor is a sociological term coined by Arlie Hochschild, an American writer and professor. She initially wrote all about the mental and physical effects of emotional labor in her book, “The Managed Heart.”
But what originally meant taking on extra emotional responsibilities in the workplace now means a host of other things for modern researchers much to Hochschild’s dismay.
What Emotional Labor Meant Then
The Berkeley professor originally defined emotional labor as something that occurs when employees introduce or suppress emotions in order to portray themselves in a certain light that, in turn, produces a wanted state of mind in another. This process is often shaped by institutions or other social structures that reinforce a particular state of mind, especially in service industry jobs such as retail.
“Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in ‘The Managed Heart,’ is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings,” Hochschild told the Atlantic. “Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it. From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this…The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”
Time and time again, I found myself exuding a positive state of mind as I helped a raging customer even if that was not truly what I felt at that moment. While it may not be physically written in a contract or term of agreement, employers expect employees to behave in a certain way to please customers as well as maintain the brand of the company.
Hochschild evaluated these behaviors and came to the conclusion that emotional labor is the work associated with such careers. After further analysis, she confirmed there are two different ways one can manage their emotions in a professional setting.
On one hand, an employee can perform what she claimed to be deep acting. Deep acting is when a person works to place his or her private emotional state into one that is in line with what is socially acceptable for the given situation. In simpler terms, deep acting is how an employee would manipulate not only their physical appearance but their internal thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, an employee can perform surface acting. Surface acting is when a person, essentially, puts on a face and places his or her outward emotional appearance in line with what is socially acceptable in a certain situation. The difference between the two is how one allows an employee to completely erase all remnants of a particular feeling, while the other is just a way to mask those feelings without entirely being rid of them.
Regardless of which one an employee may experience, both concepts fulfill the requirement of managing one’s emotions to satisfy a professional standard.
What Emotional Labor Means Now
Yet, Hochschild’s coined term has become less of a strict standard and more of an umbrella term for the endless possibilities of emotional labor. Researchers, educators and the like have boarded the train and taken off with their own respective ideas about what exactly emotional labor means.
A modernized definition of the term came from the reporter and feminist Gemma Hartley. She claimed emotional labor is emotional management as well as life management. It is the unpaid, invisible work done to keep others around us comfortable and happy. She wrote a piece in Harper’s Bazaar discussing the term, specifically, in reference to the unappreciated work of women in the household.
She wrote about the demanding job of explaining emotional labor to her husband: “If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out—keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry—he would take it as me saying, ‘Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.’ Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor in a household is frustrating.”
Hochschild did not agree. She said this change of definition blurred the lines of what emotional labor truly meant. Although housework can be taxing, she did not consider it to be emotional labor.
Some people believed the term to represent struggles of perpetuating stereotypes, especially for black women who are forced to keep a smile at risk of becoming the ‘angry black woman.’ Others saw emotional labor as a means of managing relationships and how to deal with them when in a crisis.
The Alarming Part of Emotional Labor
There is an obvious contrast between Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor and those that have followed, but what is alarming is how these newer conceptions of the term are now able to divide people. The misuse of the term has caused more of an uproar rather than an open door for conversation.
An example of this is when the beliefs of one social justice activist took to Twitter to voice her opinions on how emotional labor should be used to ensure personal wellness at the cost of helping out a friend or family member. She said it is emotional labor when a person brings up a traumatic experience or crisis without getting consent from the other party first, even if a friend is simply asking for advice on a heavy subject. Then she created a template for followers to politely decline the use of their emotional labor, asserting they would not be in the right headspace to fully help that person.
Michella A. Fabello tweeted, “Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice.”
Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice.
— Melissa A. Fabello, PhD (@fyeahmfabello) November 18, 2019
As a result, the internet split into two. While a few people understood that it is best to protect your peace at any cost, not everyone could see the bright side of dismissing a person in need. From this standpoint, Fabello’s comments made relationships appear to be transactional rather than relational.
Because emotional labor is such a misunderstood concept, there is no telling whether there is a right or wrong in the situation. One can only hope that with more research, there will be a solution to the ways people determine what is and what is not emotional labor.