Emotional labour. You must have seen this term making its rounds on the internet. It’s come to mean the emotional management that people undertake in their daily relationships and everyday life, ranging from remembering people’s birthdays to being polite to a rude client. I know. It seems ridiculous at best and capitalistic rhetoric at worse – commodifying basic human decency and calling it ‘labour’. But hear me out. There are some really good reasons we need to start talking about emotional labour. Because like everything in this world, emotional labour is gendered. It’s also a concept we can’t wholly capture without looking at it from an intersectional lens, because like most mainstream feminist discourse it has been dominated by white, middle-class, cis-women narratives.
Where did it come from?
Although emotional labour has come to have an all-encompassing definition of the emotional management we do in our everyday lives, the term was originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to mean the faking, suppressing, magnifying or altering of emotions in the employment realm. Think of the flight attendant who has to keep smiling even though she’s hungry, tired and hasn’t slept for 48 hours. Think of the customer service representative who is repeatedly told to ‘turn their frown upside down’ to prevent the customer from having a negative store experience. This is the emotional management that is prescribed by the organisation itself, is absolutely indispensable to the job and therefore can be considered institutionalised.
the term was originally coined to mean the faking, suppressing, magnifying or altering of emotions in the employment realm.
In what ways is it gendered?
Studies have shown that of all the employed women in India, almost half belong to the service industry. But this is not only about the percentage of women participating in an industry that demands extensive ‘emotional labour’ everyday, it is also the gendered implications of exercising this labour in a deeply patriarchal society that we must recognize. Think of all the times a woman flight attendant has been expected to maintain a ‘pleasant disposition’ in the face of sexual harassment by a male ‘customer’, just because her job requires her to do so. In such a context, the emotional labour demanded by the organisation reinforces gendered power dynamics while silencing women as part of a job requirement.
But such ‘emotional labour’ is not only an institutional demand that bears grave consequences for women, it is a societal expectation for women in general. The ability to perform such labour is often seen as an inherent quality of women workers, consistent with the gendered notion that women are naturally more nurturing, caring, intuitive and empathetic, which casts their emotional labour as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character” quotes Jess Zimmerman in her must-read article, ‘Where’s My Cut?: On Unpaid Emotional Labor’.
The ability to perform such labour is often seen as an inherent quality of women workers, consistent with the gendered notion that women are naturally more nurturing, caring, intuitive and empathetic.
Why does it matter?
As the term ‘emotional labour’ began to make rounds on the internet, there was suddenly an uproar by a lot of working women, who spoke of the ways they were more likely than their male counterparts to engage in daily ‘emotion work’ at their jobs, whether it was organising birthday celebrations, remembering to fill up the coffee filter, lending a listening ear or making new employees feel comfortable. While such ‘emotion work’ is not necessarily an organisational demand, we find the gendered expectations constantly placed on women in the private sphere mirrored in the public realm. And women are angry for good reason. First, the extra ‘emotion work’ women do to contribute to work culture is not recognised as ‘work’ as it is considered a manifestation of innate characteristics that women not only enjoy, but just ‘are’. Second, this not only places the onus of making space for the needs/wants of others predominantly on women, it grants men the liberty (or at times the task) of being emotionally lazy.
Why it it an intersectional reality?
There is then the extra ‘emotion work’ one has to shoulder, when their gender identity intersects with their other social identities of caste/class/sexuality/race/non-able bodiness /religion etc., adding layers to the deluge of offensive and uncomfortable situations one has to ‘politely and rationally’ navigate in their daily lives, both in and out of the workplace. It’s having to constantly explain your identity, ‘teach’ your colleagues why a remark was offensive and bear the additional responsibility of managing your emotions not just for yourself but for the ‘community’ you represent, because minorities above and all are considered representatives of their ‘communities’. Most glaringly, the ‘emotion work’ minority women have to labour to do is suppressing the expression of anger, which is not only considered a ‘unwomanly’ emotion, but whose expression can have potentially dangerous to fatal consequences. For a lot of women, their emotional management is a form of survival in a patriarchal society, in which they are left with little to no choice. Think of all the times you have been leered at, glared at and your space has been exploited, but all you could do was look the other way. That right there is the ‘emotion work’ women have to undertake in their daily lives, and it’s not only draining and exhausting, its traumatising.
For a lot of women, their emotional management is a form of survival in a patriarchal society, in which they are left with little to no choice.
Where do we go from here?
We can dichotomise between ‘emotional labour’ in the public and private realms, and some believe it’s important to do so. For instance, Hochschild believed that recognizing ‘emotional labour’ as the institutionalisation of ‘managing emotions’ would allow for changes in policy and work culture that could help mediate some of its gendered implications. To many, however, the distinction is blurry, but the one thing that is glaringly evident is that people are demanding discourse on it. It seems like this discourse has been monopolised by white middle class women from the ‘Global North’, which leaves out important layers of social reality from the understanding of this concept, including culture, class, race etc.
We must bring in diversity to the discourse. But what will this discourse do? Don’t tell me these feminists are going to ask for remuneration for this ‘emotional labour’! Well, ideally yes, but this is not about remuneration. Rather this is about recognising and acknowledging that constantly managing one’s emotions and making spaces for others needs/wants is exhausting, invisible and heavily gendered, and yes, its ‘work’. As Jess Zimmerman says, “I don’t expect to get $700,000, now that I’m trying to remember that emotional labour has value. I don’t expect to get anything, really. But at least now I know that when I get nothing, I’m being cheated. That’s a start”
Featured Image Source: BBC Three