I recently had the opportunity to explain to someone what I think is a key distinction for when we use the term emotional labor and when we talk more generally about how humans work with emotions in their daily (and sometimes professional) lives. I thought it was worth replicating here.
The topic of emotional labor has become a rallying cry for many women and feminists, and for good reason. As I defined it here, 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.
It does not always exist within a gendered context; there are a number of professions that demand it, for example, like working retail (especially in America, where the customer is always right, ugh) as well as jobs where the employee is both responsible for the customer’s safety and for making the customer happy (think about airline attendants or tour guides). In all these cases, the employee must work to manage their own emotions privately while catering to the customer’s or client’s emotions primarily, in addition to doing whatever work is explicitly in the job description.
Further, there’s a legitimate critique around overusing the term emotional labor to apply to situations that do not validly fall within its descriptive reach. And… I get it. As a scholar, when I encounter a new term or theory that seems to explain so much!!! then I get excited. That’s how I felt upon encountering Kate Manne’s work on misogyny, which I write about here. Is it fun seeing the world through misogyny-analyzing-tinted-glasses? Not really. But it’s helpful in some ways, as I refine my intellectual and emotional sense of these ideas and their relevance.
So here’s the thing: I understand the zeal for seeing emotional labor everywhere, and I also think we need more nuanced language to not only combat this over-enthusiasm (since if we let the meanings of words become too diluted, they cease to deliver the impact that makes them useful, and yeah, I know this makes it seem like I’m coming from a very finicky scholarly perspective, but precision of language is what allows scholars and scientists and teachers and writers to do what we do).
Because emotional labor is not the only way people interact with emotions in ourselves and others. It is a significant way, and it can feel magnified once we identify it and have language for it, especially since doing unrecognized emotional labor for a long time is super draining, and it feels validating to finally have words and concepts for it.
I’m sure other scholars in other disciplines have language for this already, but I’m going to call the everyday interactions we have with emotions, which are not by definition emotional labor, emotion work.
Emotion work is when you sift through your own feelings in order to figure out where you stand on something. Emotion work is helping a friend or family member process or reflect on their emotions. Emotion work is when you’re professionally involved in helping people do the same, whether as a therapist or teacher. Emotion work can involve journaling, or conversing, or writing letters.
Emotion work can veer into emotional labor, when (often gendered, raced, and/or classed) assumptions about who “should” do this work, or who is “better” at it, come into play. This is why it’s important to maintain an intersectional lens when talking about who gets burdened with the most emotional labor; often it’s people experiencing oppression or marginalization through multiple factors who are assumed to owe the most emotional labor to those in dominant groups.
But, at the end of the day, all humans do emotion work (or should). We all have emotions. We’re all responsible for a bare minimum of managing our own emotions when interacting with others. Some of us are better at it than others, whether due to an intuitive sense for it, a built-up skill set over time, or the coping mechanisms that come with being expected to be better at emotion work due to the identities we occupy.
As a sex educator, I’m a fan of implementing universal, comprehensive, inclusive, medically-accurate sex education for all ages that also contains lesson plans on how to do emotion work and manage one’s own emotions. Because, again, this is something all people should be able to do, regardless of whichever identities you occupy. My sex ed colleague Kate Kenfield has a great metaphor for learning how to do this better: the potato metaphor.
This, incidentally, is one of the messages of feminism that applies to everyone: that we should cease considering emotions (and emotion work, and emotional labor) the domain of women, for at least a few reasons that I can think of now. For one thing, it’s ridiculous to take a broad realm of human experience – emotion – and assign its care to half the population. For another, the natural variations in who feels more or less, or who enjoys emotion work more or less, don’t fall along obvious gender lines, so it’s silly to try to make them conform to such. Finally, we will have more egalitarian relationships overall when we’re not expecting half the population to prop up the other half (not that all relationships are heterosexual in the first place).
I try to practice this in my teaching, where I expose college students to stories and ideas from different cultures, and model how to respond emotionally to these novel and sometimes challenging things. I try to practice this in my personal life, where I am explicit about setting boundaries around when I will and will not be available for emotion work or emotional labor. I’m not always successful, but these are lifelong skills.
Ideally, we’d live in a world where emotional labor is explicitly communicated about and compensated, and where everyone is competent about doing emotion work in their personal lives. But the first step in getting there is having language for these things, hence this blog post. I collect a few more resources about emotional labor in this post if you’re interested in learning more.