Love it or hate it, accept it or deny it, emotional labor structures the life experiences of women and other marginalized folks more often than not.
Emotional labor is the set of expectations – often gendered – according to which certain people are socially expected to manage both their emotions and those of others, by being available for sympathy and informal counseling in what is not necessarily a reciprocal give-and-take friendship dynamic, but rather a one-sided flow in which the person doing the bulk of the work is expected to because they’re female, or perceived to just be better at it, or to like it. In a strict sociological sense, it refers to “the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules and guidelines.”
Examples of emotional labor include service workers needing to smile more often to get better tips; retail workers needing to appear to be upbeat/enthusiastic about what they’re selling even when they don’t feel that way; managing someone’s emotions by taking the brunt of an outburst and then soothing them; women being told to smile in public; and doing the planning/organizing tasks to bring a social group closer together.
All humans must perform emotional labor at some point, just as part of being members of society, and that’s fine. The problem is when emotional labor becomes an implicit expectation, whether in the workplace, at home, or in society at large. It’s also problematic when emotional labor is naturalized for some populations but not others. Obviously I loathe essentializing gendered bullshit on every level, but it’s especially frustrating to be told that women are “simply better” at having emotional talks or soothing hurt feelings or shopping for parties.
Because instead of labor, we’re taught that the work we do to care for others is an act of love which must be given freely, even when it comes at the cost of our own well-being and self-expression.
We’re taught to doubt ourselves, our instincts, our needs, so that we can play the role of loving child, friend, mother, nurse, therapist, lover.
Women and marginalized people are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that part of being who we are is the paradoxical duty to at once understand and care for everyone else’s feelings and desires while not having a right to our own.
In the workplace, as noted in this Guardian article, emotional labor expectations run rampant. Sociologist Jennifer Lena explains: “there are certain jobs where it’s a requirement, where there is no training provided, and where there’s a positive bias towards certain people – women – doing it. It’s also the kind of work that is denigrated by society at large.”
In other contexts, this is called second-shifting, carework, or pink (-collar) labor. I’m writing about it with some digital humanities colleagues in terms of the committee work and organizing that women often gravitate to in academic contexts, and how on the one hand we’re seeing more involvement by women in central parts of digital humanities organizations, but on the other hand it’s often considered less prestigious than research and publishing. Our essay is being considered for publication so I’ll be sure to link to it when it goes live!
See also: Women’s Work and Academia
Emotional labor essentially comes down to an issue of power: who has it, and who doesn’t. As I wrote in a brief reflective piece, “Pleasing others is taxing on one’s emotions and energy more generally. Having to please another is a form of emotional labor.”
Again, on some level, this is something all humans do. It’s something all relationships require. We all make sacrifices and compromises in order to get what we want. But when this phenomenon is imbalanced in gendered ways, I get angry and want to blog about it. Similarly, the shift of emotional labor expectations onto black women is problematic and needs to be discussed more. And so on with other marginalized and/or intersectional identities where the burden is on the oppressed person to make nice and always smile and not appear threatening and calmly explain the reality of their oppression to those who just don’t get it. Why yes, this makes me angry, and no, I don’t want to veil that emotion to make others more comfortable.
Up next: a reflection on emotional labor in the household and in family units, a.ka. guess who has to make to-do lists and write thank-you notes most of the time.