Better Life Lab

Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock.

The stress and time commitment of calling around to find a house cleaner or having to explain why a box on the floor annoys you. The tedium of finding a train route for a male friend who wants to meet up with you or explaining to another friend why not communicating about plans is bad manners. What do these activities have in common? According to the authors of recently viral pieces at Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmo, respectively, they’re all examples of emotional labor. Unfortunately, this is a phrase that’s being used and abused as a catchall for what are either pretty complex, sticky situations or just straightforward cases of male helplessness. In our rush to bring greater awareness to gender frustrations that we’re just beginning to talk about publicly, we should remember that not all kinds of gender and relationship problems are in fact, emotional labor. To solve these problems, we need to get better at teasing out the many layers of labor and frustration leading to these perceived patterns, rather than throwing them all in the emotional labor bin.

In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor. Hochschild was also worried about the potential social and health side effects of asking people to manipulate their emotions for others for pay, day after day. How did this affect their well-being when they went home? Did it alienate them from their ability to gauge their authentic emotions when they clocked out and regained their autonomy? Are women judged differently for their emotional work than men are? How are the emotions of people of color judged more harshly at work than white workers’, and how is this leading to workplace inequality? Hochschild’s work anticipated the rich field of research on the booming low-wage, high-stress service sector many workers find themselves navigating today.

However, since 1983 there’s been a shift away from using this as a term to understand the workplace to using it colloquially to explain interpersonal relationships between men and women. In 2015, some were calling emotional labor “feminism’s next frontier.” Taking Hochschild’s phrase from our workplaces to our homes requires some clarity, at least in part so we don’t trivialize the actual emotional labor many workers (customer service agents, flight attendants, nurses, and adjunct professors) do on a daily basis in their jobs, sometimes without support or adequate training.

So what exactly is emotional labor? Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning. Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad. At home, this might mean giving solace to a crying child with warm words and a calm demeanor or intervening between your mom and your sister when a fight about Trump threatens to ruin Thanksgiving. And when there’s a partnership or friendship in which one person is the go-to emotional servant while the other disregards others’ feelings and well-being will-nilly, these people are rightfully called emotional vampires.

What isn’t emotional labor? Most things, actually.

If you are thinking of slapping the term emotional labor on pain points in your everyday life, ask yourself these questions to find out whether this is actually the term you’re looking for.

Is it emotional labor or just labor you feel emotions about? Writing this article produces emotions (self-doubt, exhaustion, but also sympathy and curiosity, in fits and starts), and it requires labor (mostly of the variety sociologists call knowledge work), but that does not mean writing this article is an act of emotional labor. If we referred to everything we do that requires labor and produces emotions as emotional labor, there would be virtually no labor, aside from the labor done by the unfeeling robots of our future, that didn’t qualify. If everything belongs in a category, that category ceases to exist. And this is one category we actually need as we try to understand the changing nature of work, gender, and their larger repercussions.

In the viral Harper’s article, for instance, our protagonist-author Gemma Hartley describes the rage she feels upon noticing a box that her husband got out is still out days later. She feels very real emotions about that box and what it represents, but feeling emotions about the failure of someone’s else’s domestic labor is not the same as doing emotional labor. What might follow is an argument in which Hartley performs emotional labor to make her husband feel better about this oversight, but the root problem here is about domestic, not emotional, labor.

Is there another, better word for the labor you’re talking about? If so, let’s use it.

Let’s take a look at a list of examples of emotional labor listed by Andrea Bartz in Cosmo that are actually great examples of other kinds of labor: “Noticing that a female colleague’s comment was ignored and repeating it with credit, a technique known as amplification: That’s emotional labor.” That sounds like activism, actually, a socially important, usually unpaid labor that often goes unrecognized.

“Arranging office happy hours: Yep, emotional labor, too.” Scheduling is a kind of clerical labor (yet another kind of labor women often do that goes unrecognized and unrewarded). Clerical work done well might lead to an event that has emotional benefits to attendees, but it is not labor that primarily involves the self-conscious regulation of emotions. The work of thinking about the need for happy hour and deciding it should be scheduled has another term, which Bartz actually uses in the piece, “mental load,” a common problem felt in all kinds of management relationships, emotional, intimate, or otherwise.

“Explaining to the world why unmarried women can’t be left out of this conversation: You see where this is going, and if you think you’re tired of ‘whiny, self-obsessed snowflakes,’ just imagine how exhausted we feel.” 

That feeling of exhaustion that courses through you when you have to educate someone about something you expected would be common sense and self-apparent? That’s called educational labor, or, being an educator. And remember: The feeling of frustration felt over a task does not make that task emotion work.

Is calling this emotional labor a way to avoid negotiating about whether an expectation of another is reasonable? Many of the essays about emotional labor point to specific conversations or disagreements with an otherwise good and decent spouse as evidence of emotional laboring. In Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley uses the example of asking her husband to find a cleaning service using her preferred research methods of soliciting ideas on Facebook and researching all of their costs. When he instead decides to clean the bathroom himself, Hartley is angry because he didn’t do the task precisely as she wanted, although the outcome is, nonetheless, a clean bathroom. It’s hard to know exactly which part of this dispute is the emotional labor, or why Hartley thinks her frustration and not her husband’s confusion and regret should count as emotional labor. Instead, this is a standard negotiation of domestic work that is part of any marriage.

And the tendency of women to expect things to be done in particular ways is a problem that goes far beyond Hartley’s marriage. The anxiety women feel about it shouldn’t be confused as proof that their way of doing things is right and the men in their lives are incompetent or wrong. Sociologists have a word for the tendency of women to set the terms for how parenting or housework should take place and then policing that line in such a way that men are effectively shut out of doing it. It’s called maternal gatekeeping. It’s a problem that’s bad for fathers, kids, and the mothers who end up stressed and overworked because of it. If we chalk up every dispute over how and when something should be done to emotional labor, we might bulldoze our way past the possibility that our own expectations can be our worst enemy.

The recent surge of articles about emotional labor is a sign of a very real problem in our society, but it’s a problem that doesn’t need a new name. These articles have resonated because many people, most of them women, sense that there’s a pattern of inequality playing out over and over again in their lives and the lives of their friends that goes something like this: A woman feels she’s keeping her household, friend group, or workplace functioning on an even keel, senses that she’s not being recognized, appreciated, or compensated for it, and, when she tries to explain that feeling, her frustration mounts at the inability of others to understand her. This is a common story hiding multitudes—layers upon layers of labor, emotion, exhaustion, and injustice.

There’s no shortage of gender research to support and validate these feelings. They’re real and they matter. It’s a good example of the kind of consistent inequality and exploitation of women’s labor, bodies, and feelings that feminist thinkers since the 1960s have been dissecting. However, they didn’t term these injustices emotional labor; their catchall term was much more accurate: patriarchy. It’s a term that, unfortunately, still perfectly fits the bill.