Are We Overusing the Term Emotional Labor?

Are We Overusing the Term Emotional Labor? December 24, 2018

When I first learned about the term emotional labor, it was like I’d just been given a key to unlock experiences I’d been having but didn’t have the words to describe. Did I then go on to misuse the term?

Photo by Alexandre Godreau, from Unsplash. In public domain.

I initially wrote about gender and emotional labor, defining the latter as “the set of expectations – often gendered – according to which certain people are socially expected to manage both their emotions and those of others.” I then went on to write about domestic management as emotional labor, kin-keeping and worry-work as types of emotional labor, and connections between emotional labor and studying folklore. More recently, I wrote about the emotional labor involved in rejecting someone’s advances when they have a contractual concept of consent.

But then I read an interview with the sociologist who invented the concept, Dr. Arlie Hochschild, who pointed out the concept creep that has been happening in recent uses of the term: “the umbrella of emotional labor has grown so large that it’s starting to cover things that make no sense at all, such as regular household chores, which are not emotional so much as they are labor, full stop.”

And really, I am all for making it clear much how much labor goes into domestic labor and kin-keeping, things that are primarily conceptualized as women’s work. This is, after all, one of the goals of contemporary feminism: to make visible the continuing assumptions about gender roles that lead to uneven treatment and outcomes for men and women.

So I think we need to both keep the focus on the disproportionate amount of labor that falls to women and keep the narrow focus of emotional labor accurate. That is, after all, part of what drives me as a scholar to defend the use of jargon in appropriate contexts: words mean things, and we need to keep words meaning specific things in order to have nuanced discussion of complex topics available to us.

One of the things I love about the interview is that the writer asks Dr. Hochschild if a number of things would count as emotional labor. To the question of handling and planning family events, Dr. Hochschild responds:

Not inherently. It can be, if you’re feeling that burdened and resentful and you’re managing your resentment. One of the consequences of living in this age is what I call a stalled revolution. It is this uneven rate of change for men and women. One of the tragic effects of a stalled revolution is many women cannot afford the luxury of unambivalent love for their husbands.

What I want to focus on here are the resentful and burdened feelings. I think one of the reasons I gravitate so much towards the concept of emotional labor personally is that I equate housework and kin-keeping in a heterosexual marital context with resentment and burden… because  those are the things I felt, as an underemployed PhD who was in a heterosexual marriage and who did the bulk of the domestic and kin-keeping work. I don’t always feel resentful doing these things (for instance, I love living alone and keep a pretty tidy household in those circumstances), but I think what I resented was the implication that I was supposed to do these tasks because I was simply better at them as a woman. I resent how they “naturally” fell onto my plate and became my problem.

The problem, at the end of the day, seems to be 1) naturalizing assumptions and 2) entitlement, both of which tend to fall along heteronormative gendered lines. And these gender lines are so utterly pervasive that I’m coming to believe that I have not overused or misused emotional labor, though perhaps I let the concept creep influence my enthusiasm for applying it to All The Things.

I still see emotional labor whenever I look at most heterosexual households, or housework in general, or kinship systems, or heteronormative dating patterns… but this is probably less because of concept creep and more because of the naturalization of (Western) femininity as a gender that excels are caring, emotion-based work. And also because of the naturalization of gender roles overall, so that women are seen as inherently willing to embrace the types of labor coded as feminine and if they don’t what’s wrong with them?! Hence, my application of emotional labor remains correct: women must not only perform the labor coded as proper for them, but they must also do so with a smile indicating how much they embrace their gender roles, regardless of their actual feelings on the matter. That is what chafes at me most.

And remember, not all emotional labor is bad. Hochschild answers the question of whether it can be fun with “yes, if it’s not a broken care system.” This is why I, in my professional role as a teacher, love showing care for my students and helping manage their emotions when I’m on the job, whether in the college classroom or dance studio. I chose this. I signed up for it. I brag about teaching moments where my students show their understanding, or feel safe coming to me for help. However, I do not want the job to follow me home, which is part of why I try to make sure friends and family know when they are asking educational (and emotional) labor of me.

But a lot of emotional labor happens within broken care systems, where the person doing the extra caring on behalf of someone else does not in return get cared-for extra reciprocally. Which, again, returns us to a critique less of emotional labor in general, and more of the “shoulds” of contemporary American gender roles.

So, let’s be mindful of the proper definitions of the words we use, but let’s also defeat patriarchal assumptions about who is most fit to do housework with a smile. It’s that “with a smile” bit that really captures the essence of emotional labor: not just doing whatever labor is at hand, but doing so with the convincing appearance of liking it, probably while simultaneously managing the emotions of those around you.

No wonder, in the words of Saturday Night Live, your momma’s always so tired, especially once you factor in the other forms of gender-based violence women so often face.

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