The term “emotional labor”. applies to tons of homework, from keeping mental to-do lists to remembering to call your relatives on their birthdays. Some advocate the necessity teach boys emotional labor, or define it men still do not understand how unpaid work is.

But that’s not what emotional labor is, according to the sociologist who coined the term in 1983 in his book The Controlled Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feelings.

For Arlie Russell Hochschild, emotional labor is emotion work (managing human feelings) performed in exchange for pay and as a condition of employment.

What is commonly called emotional labor – the (unpaid) emotional management we do in our private lives, such as parenting and personal relationships – is actually emotional labor, but should not be defined as emotional labor.

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What is emotional labor?

There is emotional work clearly defined Hochschild as “manipulating the senses to create a publicly observable display of face and body.” [that is] In 1983, she estimated that about one-third of all jobs in the United States have elements of emotional labor, which disproportionately affects women in the service industry.

Hochschild’s analysis was based on participant observation, interviews, and informal discussions with a number of airline employees. Emotional labor, she said, is only applicable to those jobs where the worker has to express feelings and evoke emotions in others while working.

She explains that emotional labor is usually an effort get the right feel for the job. Examples include a flight attendant who creates a relaxed atmosphere, a secretary who promotes a fun office, a waiter who facilitates a pleasant dinner, or a funeral director who makes the bereaved feel understood.

The feeling rules and expectations that go into emotional labor are documented in the Controlled heart. The following example presents a case in which the absence of emotional labor reveals its cultural expectations and demand:

Emotional labor requires workers not just to manage their own emotions, but to adopt systems to manage the flow of emotions and exchanges between workers and customers. According to Hochschild, a flight attendant must be kinder than is natural.

Conversely, the debt collector is expected to be tougher to instill fear in his customers. In both cases, the employee is expected to create a feeling in the consumer to satisfy the company’s requirements.

Emotional labor is defined as having three dimensions:

  • they require face-to-face or voice contact with the public
  • they require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person
  • they allow employers, through training and supervision, to exercise some degree of control over the emotional activity of employees.

It is this attempt to manage the emotional system in public life – and especially in a commercial context – that constitutes emotional labor.

The concept symbolizes the transition from the use of emotions in the private sphere to their application in commercial contexts; what Hochschild calls “transmutation.” achieved through the workings of emotions, the rules of feeling, and social exchange that form the basis of emotional life.

Emotional labor and feeling rules originate in the private sphere. But emotional labor brings them into a commercial context, where their performance and management is turned into a product.

As Hochschild stated in a recent interviewthe current use of the term she coined runs the risk of expanding its meaning so freely as to render it meaningless:

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Controlled heart

Almost 40 years after its original publication in 1983, it is worth revisiting The Controlled Heart, arguably one of the most important contemporary sociological texts.

The driven heart that recognized Hochschild as a public sociologist may be her most lasting contribution. The value of employment conditions in modern capitalist post-industrial societies characterized by the expansion of the service sector is investigated.

As Hochschild explains in the book’s opening, her quest was to consider—following Marx’s interest in the conditions of employment—the human cost of becoming a tool of labor.

She turned to the airline and, in particular, to the experience of flight attendants in managing their emotions at work. She also turned to bill collectors as another revealing case study.

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The costs of emotional labor

Hochschild found that when commercial interests claim a worker’s emotional life, he becomes vulnerable to alienation from aspects of himself and his work.

The flight attendants interviewed by Hochschild often said that their smiles were there but not at them, and they found it difficult to shake off the artificial high after work born of the need to constantly raise the status of the customer by acting as if the cockpit was the customer’s home.

Workers also cope with this demand by taking time off work. Workers who clearly separate themselves from their work are less prone to burnout, but risk alienation. They can become cynical about being asked to act and perform.

By taxing the worker, this form of work creates a version of social life in which many people – we as customers – experience trusting and pleasant relationships with complete strangers every day.

But the costs of doing emotional labor show how important it is to get the concept right. By overextending the term, we risk devaluing it – or worse, making the type of work it describes less salient.

And this undermines a key contribution made in Hochschild’s book: making visible the struggle that this work imposes on the worker. A struggle that until then had been largely invisible or rarely acknowledged.

Authors: Michael James Walsh – Associate Professor of Social Sciences, University of Canberra | Stephanie Alice Baker is Senior Lecturer in Sociology, City, University of London—and-how-do-we-get-it-wrong

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