Monday, December 12, 2016

Heavy Lifting

I was reading a discussion of "emotional labor" online, and it wasn't quite clear to be what people were referring to, so I decided to look it up. And the World Wide Web basically gave me two definitions.

Emotional Labor
1. the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors.
2. the feminist idea that women – and other people that society labels “feminine” – are socialized to provide a vast array of emotional services for other people (usually men), most often without acknowledgement or pay.
Interestingly, both of these definitions originate with the same person, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. Just as interestingly, the second definition actually belongs (more or less) to another term that she coined, "Emotion work."
Examples of emotion work include showing affection, apologizing after an argument, bringing up problems that need to be addressed in an intimate relationship or any kind of interpersonal relationship, and making sure the household runs smoothly.
The language nerd in me finds this utterly fascinating. These concepts, coined by the same person, are merging into the same term, but they're used by different groups. In business literature, such as the Harvard Business Review or Pacific Standard the mentions I found were more in the context of definition 1. Whereas other outlets, like The Huffington Post or Everyday Feminism concerned themselves with the second usage.

You could make the point that since Professor Hochschild had defined emotion work, to use that as a definition of emotional labor is technically incorrect, but I'm not sure that anyone cares, and so I'm going to leave it aside. What interests me is how the two concepts came to share the same label. My own personal theory is that "emotional labor" is simply a more compelling term than "emotion work," and one that fits into the idea that much of what people (women, especially) do in their private lives should be thought of as just as demanding (and just as worthy of remuneration) as what they do in their professional lives. Or perhaps, that we consider "labor" to be more serious and/or more strenuous than mere work, and so describing it as such does a better job of describing the toll that we understand that it takes on people. Of course, part of it could simply be that many reporters don't really understand the difference - and so the general synonymity of "labor" and "work" has a lot to do with it.

Of the four articles that I browsed through in seeking to understand the different usages, only the Pacific Standard piece had significant overlap, noting a study that it said showed that women did more "emotional labor" in their relationships. But the title of that study is: “Women’s Work? Women Partners of Transgender Men Doing Housework and Emotion Work.” In short, here was a journalist who included a study on emotion work in an article on emotional labor, apparently unaware of the distinction, even while crediting Professor Hochschild.

When I worked with children, there were significant components of both emotional labor and emotion work to the job. Certain emotions were off-limits once you walked in the door, and in that sense, one could say that Professor Hochschild's original definition of "emotional labor" is simply a shorter way of saying "leave your personal feelings at home." No matter what happened, you had to be a certain, limited, version of yourself in front of the children, and if you couldn't maintain that, you simply weren't going to make it. No matter what was going on in your personal life, you had to be a stable and welcoming person for the youth in your care. And by the same token, we were expected to emotional role models for children that we generally understood lacked the same in the lives before they'd come to the treatment center, and so there was emotion work involved. Showing affection for the kids, taking the first steps to deescalate tensions, and well, making sure that the place ran smoothly; these were the jobs of all the staff, male or female. Sure, as a guy, I was often saddled with the job of being the disciplinarian, but I also had to be the person that the children could talk to about it afterwards, no matter what had happened beforehand. As the adults, we had to place them first. And unlike in adult relationships, you couldn't complain to them about a failure to pull their weight.

Back in my twenties, these didn't strike me as different activities - although Professor Hochschild has already done a lot of her work back then. Perhaps if I'd focused more on Sociology rather than Psychology, or just decided to go for the minor, I'd have been introduced to her work, and been able to see the difference. But, at the time, it was simply part of the day-to-day of my job. In the end, I think that it was better for me that I didn't understand the science behind it all, after all, it was leaving social services that pushed me into technology, and the money is much better here. And I think that if I'd been better about compartmentalizing things, I'd have lasted longer than I did. But that doesn't mean that I'm done with the emotional fakery. Sure, I can grouse a bit about the job, but genuine candor simply isn't happening anytime soon.

Being single, I don't have to be concerned with my ability to do most emotion work at home. Sure, I have to make sure that my household keeps running; given that I'm the only person in it, no one else is going to make sure of it. And I don't have anyone to show affection to or initiate making up with after a fight. So I won't presume to try and critique myself on it from the relatively short time when I was in relationships - I honestly wouldn't begin to know how to judge.

One of the things about both terms, is that they make both concepts seem like more effort than I recall them being, back when I actively had to do them on a day-to-day basis. Of course, the feminist critique of that might simply be that I'm a man, and even when my job demanded a certain level of emotional labor and emotion work, I simply slacked off at it. And that could be true - again, I wouldn't know how to judge. But I think that even when you're consciously doing things as part of your professional life, you can subsume them into the broader category of that professional life, and so they don't loom as large. I didn't really realize the amount of work I had put into not swearing until I was done working with children and didn't have to watch my language for every minute of 40+ hours a week. By the same token, I often don't realize how much I suppress my irritation with things that happen at work, until something similar happens away from work, and I notice how much it rankles me.

In the end, I think that it's unfortunate that "emotional labor" has been drafted into doing double-duty. The distinction between emotional labor and emotion work is a useful one that's likely to eventually be mostly lost. But it's like any number of discussions worth having. We put them aside, and we never get back to them, and the conversation fades away.

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