The Overuse of 'Emotional Labor' Turns All Relationships Into Work

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When the term “emotional labor” was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, she described it as a burden placed on workers under capitalism. Workers might do physical labor, pushing carts, running machines, but they also often perform labor that “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in other.” This labor—smiling at customers, refraining from yelling at a rude patron because “the customer is always right”—is a labor of performance required to do these jobs. “Part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labor would show in an unseemly way,” Hochschild writes.

But the term “emotional labor” has strayed far from its roots as a useful definition for the expectation for workers to suppress or disguise their true emotions in the workplace, even in dire conditions. In the past few years, the concept of emotional labor has gone mainstream on social media and in articles that revive and expand the idea, with the term moving out of the workplace and insidiously into our homes. Suddenly emotional labor is being redefined as something people perform when they comfort their partners, when parents raise their children, and now something as simple as friendship is apparently emotional labor.

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This week the writer Melissa A. Fabello wrote a lengthy thread on Twitter about a friend who texted her, asking permission to vent. While Fabello says this is a good friend who doesn’t need to ask for permission, she explains that texts like this are nice because she is the kind of person who has “several crises” happening in her texts, followers asking for advice in her DMs, and her own problems. “Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice,” she writes. She also says that “too often, friends unload on me without warning” and that unless it’s an emergency that’s “unfair.” She ends her thread by giving people a bizarre script to use when a friend reaches out and they’re apparently “at capacity” to respond.

Is calling on a friend to vent really emotional labor? I think of my friends who frequently text me “can I be a bitch for a second?” and how I can’t type “YES!!!!” fast enough. Emotional labor, in this application, is a term weighted with an annoying sense of obligation: You put aside your own emotions and issues to submit yourself to another person’s needs. But what’s confusing about using it to describe friendship is that in the traditional definition of the term, that sense of obligation is tied up in getting paid. The suggestion is that the unspoken duties of being a good friend, out of kindness and thanklessness, is akin to hours gone unbilled. If you perceive the foundation of friendship as emotional labor, then friendship is always work.

In the degradation of the term emotional labor, we lose a crucial framework to define the taxing emotional burden of being a worker in a society that continually wants employees to believe their coworkers are “their family” so that they work harder and never want to leave their desks. But we also saddle the relationships we can form beyond the workplace, away from our obligations to work, with a similar, dreaded sense of duty. The overuse of the term emotional labor redefines our relationships, the ones we build out of care and love, into workplace disputes. Fabello writes in her script “could we connect at [a later time and date]” as if checking in with a friend in a time of need is another meeting to be scheduled with a conference room to book.

Personal relationships can be unspoken worksites. Women undoubtedly do more silent and physical labor in straight relationships than men do, from literal housework and child-rearing to the quiet expectation that they keep track of dates, family birthdays, doctor’s appointments. But the latter is not so much emotional labor as it is mental, Hochschild told The Atlantic. “There seems an alienation or a disenchantment of acts that normally we associate with the expression of connection, love, commitment. Like ‘Oh, what a burden it is to pick out gifts for the holiday for my children,’” she told the magazine. “I feel a strong need to point out that this isn’t inherently an alienating act. And something’s gone haywire when it is.”

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What might be harder for people who cling to the term emotional labor to describe the acts they do for others is that expression of “connection, love, and commitment” Hochschild speaks of. What people like Fabello describe as emotional labor is often the bare minimum of what’s expected in a relationship when it’s built on love and respect. Listening to your friend talk about their bad day isn’t emotional labor; it’s just being a friend.

Emotional labor has become a catchall for everything expected of women; it’s the intimacy sex workers perform for clients, and when a woman asks her husband to do tasks around the house. But in emotional labor’s new definition of “emotion management,” it’s been defanged to the point that the terminology is essentially meaningless.

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel