on emotional labor

Some of you will be familiar with this idea, and some of you will not be. It’s not a new concept, not exactly, but it has been coming up more and more frequently in the online spaces that I tend to inhabit. I’m happy people are talking about emotional labor. I’m happy to contribute to the discussion.

I’ll start with an example.

I was previously employed as an English teacher. I called up professionals or executives in the various European countries, and spent anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes (and, on very rare occasions, even longer than that) teaching a particular person the difference between MAKE and DO, for example, or how irregular verbs work in the English language in general, or about the vocabulary that’s needed to get ahead in, say, managing a hospital or a sales division.

If it was just about teaching the English language, it would have been easy: try to form sentences, try to use the words correctly, try to understand how the rules of the language are different from the language/s spoken by the person in daily life. It would have been easy to say, “Are you talking about an event in the past, in the present, or in the future? Because the verb form has to change to indicate the period of time in which the action related to that verb takes place.”

That wasn’t the reason why I was always so exhausted at the end of the shift. And how could I have been exhausted when I was just sitting there, talking and typing and listening all at the same time? (Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Multitasking is tiring.)

The exhausting part was that it was always getting drilled into us by our management that “You have to be nice! You have to go into every lesson with the ACTUAL GOAL of retaining these customers! You are not an English teacher — you are a salesperson! You are selling the service — which just happens to be teaching the English language — to these professionals!”

I can teach. That’s not the problem. That’s not where the incompatibility lies.

I can’t sell something to save my life.

It’s too exhausting to smile, and manage my emotions in order to manage my student or buyer or customer’s emotions. It’s too exhausting to play up being interested in hopes of (it’s not even a guaranteed thing!) getting the person on the other end of the line to become interested and to actually get into the mindset of wanting to learn something — of wanting to buy into the service again and again.

And trust me, in this case, it’s not a gendered thing: I got tired, and the guys sitting to either side of me got tired. We were all sitting down. We were all listening and talking and typing — and we were all teaching at the same time as selling.

It was always always always those last two actions that left us drained and numb at the end of the day.

Oh, and no one in the office ever had any idea of what emotional labor even is, which meant that they had no idea of what it actually did to us.


I’ve been talking about the idea of emotional labor as something that affected people at my former job without discriminating between gender. But here’s the stark difference. If the guys sitting next to me had gone to our team leader and said, “It is tiring to be smiling all the time, and being polite all the time, and being nice and kind and good to our students, just because we’re trying to teach the English language AND sell them the service” — that team leader would probably take it as constructive criticism, and try to see if the burden could be better managed.

But if it had been me, a woman, I would have gotten the following answer: “You’re a woman. You naturally take care of people. You are nurturing. You just have to take care of the people you are teaching.”

I did get variations on that answer, for the record.

And every single variation on that answer made me want to pick that manager up and throw him out the nearest window. (We were on the tenth floor. He would have made a satisfying crunch when he hit the pavement — or maybe an even more satisfying squish, if he got run over by a speeding cab.)

For a lot of people — women, people of color often regardless of gender, those of lower social class or smaller income — emotional labor is work that they have to do every moment. Emotional labor is work that is subconsciously expected of them, every second and every minute and every hour. And emotional labor is work that they will never ever ever get paid for.

Imagine a married woman. She has her own issues with regards to her mental health. She was raised in a culture, and in a family, that expected her to put everyone else before herself: to always pay attention that the house and the family and the community are doing well, before paying attention to herself. She is married to a man who refuses to get help for his own mental and physical health. She is expected to listen to everyone’s problems and to give comfort and assistance and advice — or else to shut up and take it because they don’t think she has the capability to solve the problem, but they do need to have someone to listen to, and she’s right there. She is socialized to think that she has to care for everyone — and that it’s wrong and selfish for her to care for herself.

Is it any surprise that this woman is, basically, walking wounded every day of her life? Is it any surprise that her issues get worse and worse the more she goes around taking care of everyone’s problems? Is it any surprise that there’s next to nothing left of her at the end of a day when she has to work and then she has to take care of others on top of that work?

Okay, so I’m totally not advocating bottling emotions up. I’m totally not advocating disconnecting from friends and family in order to get away from the labor of dealing with their emotions.

I’m advocating recognition. We have to learn what emotional labor is, and then apply it to, basically, ourselves first and then everyone else around us.

It ought to be a law. More than that, it ought to be a basic human right.

How much time and energy and mental resources do I have to deal with the emotions of the people around me?

How much emotional labor am I willing to do — and how far can I push that envelope before I start hurting myself?

How much emotional labor is expected of me, and how much of it can I turn away so that I can care for myself?

How much emotional labor do I expect others to do when they’re with me?

Am I expecting others to do my emotional labor for me? Or, more pointedly, am I expecting that others must do emotional labor on my behalf?

I’m just scratching the surface here, all things considered, and there are undoubtedly people all over the Internet who are saying these things far better than I am, like Miri HERE and Christine HERE. Please, if you’ve got the time, please read those two articles, because they contain many other examples, and many other insights connected to the idea of emotional labor.

Me, I’m just trying to articulate things, though I have to admit that the subject is getting filtered through my own experiences and my own (admittedly very bleak) view of the world. I’m trying to learn, and I’m trying to take better care of myself, and the thing is, I’ve only got myself to validate myself with. I have to be good enough to myself to say, “I’m doing fine, I’m doing my best, I’m doing what will allow me to survive and to live well.”

I’d love to hear from you, dear readers, on the subject. Tell me about your own experiences of doing emotional labor for yourself and for others — and tell me about your own experiences of other people doing emotional labor specifically on your behalf. I think we can all try to do better, and I think we can try to help each other to do better.