An extremely clear definition of emotional labor for anyone who still doesn’t get it

Imagine yourself opening this gift and absolutely hating it.
Imagine yourself opening this gift and absolutely hating it.
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle
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Some months ago, I got coffee with an extremely successful, wealthy, white man. It was an unlikely pairing: He, a multimillionaire media mogul, invited me, a broke 24-year-old who spends much of her time criticizing rich, white men, to educate him about sexism at work.

To my surprise, our discussion was an absolute delight and he’s since become an invaluable mentor to me. But I still can’t shake one question he asked me during our first meeting: “What is this ’emotional labor’ thing you keep talking about?”

A half-century running businesses, and he’d never heard of emotional labor. What’s worse, no one had taken the time (or perhaps felt welcome) to explain it to him.

I remember when I first heard the term emotional labor—now an essential piece of the feminist-zeitgeist vocabulary. Adjusting to work after college, one particularly woke friend, then age 22, began posting on social media about the unnoticed work she, and all her female colleagues, were doing in the office. Constantly smiling, making small talk, planning birthday celebrations, cleaning up after celebrations. This labor extended to her personal relationships, too—endless texting to help siblings through breakups, evaluating whether friends’ hookups were fully consensual, cleaning her roommate’s dishes.

“It’s time we start recognizing this unpaid labor, which is disproportionately performed by women,” she wrote on Facebook. “That’s not to say I don’t want to do it, I often do. Still, it’s extremely draining.”

Yes, I thought, that’s absolutely how I feel. It’s why I’m exhausted after a day at the office, being cheery when I actually had insomnia the night before and would rather be anywhere else. It’s why women are always changing the coffee and checking in on new employees, and why I overload Slack messages with exclamation points and smiley faces.

Sure, some guys make these efforts. But not many.

Getting most men to understand and genuinely appreciate emotional labor is often a Sisyphean task, precisely because to them—much like microaggressions to white people—this work is invisible. If you don’t do it, or feel pressured to do it, why should you care?

What’s more, as my colleague Khe Hy beautifully unpacks in his men’s guide to understanding emotional labor, there’s no single definition of emotional labor, which means the term can become a catchall for everything from organizing Secret Santas to taking notes in meetings, or mentoring colleagues.

But even Hy, a self-described “bro-y yet sensitive guy who cares about gender equality,” found it hard in the years before #MeToo to even want to understand the concept. ”For someone looking to turn a blind eye to emotional labor (ahem, men) the term’s expansiveness provided a convenient ‘out’ of the conversation,” he writes. ”After all, if everything is emotional labor, then nothing is, right?”

Emotional labor is everywhere

Yes, emotional labor is really freaking pervasive—at work, at home, in the neighborhood grocery store. Yes, it’s nearly always shouldered by women. And yes, that only makes its monetary and cultural devaluation all the more problematic.

Still, asking the blind to see without giving them some semblance of a map feels slightly unfair. But what’s the best way to explain it?

While the term emotional labor was originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, her description of the need for workers to regulate their emotions (so to satisfy their customers) feels a bit academic. Personally, I’m more disposed toward Hy’s definition of emotional labor as “shit someone does that goes unrecognized,” but again, that’s pretty general.

Having nearly given up on succinctly describing emotional labor—and grown increasingly frustrated with myself for not being able to do so—I was floored this week while listening to an episode of organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s podcastWorkLife. On the “Faking your emotions” episode, Grant interviewed Alicia Grandey, an industrial-organizational psychologist at Penn State University who studies how people manage emotions.

Grandey uses an insanely helpful story to define emotional labor, rooted in her experience as a Starbucks barista:

“Despite being someone who enjoys people and sociable, I would find myself completely exhausted after a part-time shift at Starbucks… and I really didn’t understand why. My face would hurt. It would literally hurt from all the interacting and the smiling and the emotional labor I was doing, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called.”

“What is emotional labor,” Grant inquires. Grandey explains:

“It’s kind of like when you get a gift and you don’t really like it, and you have to still smile and act nice because otherwise your Aunt Bernadette would be offended. But you have to do that all day long. Not only that, but it’s explicitly part of your job. It’s tied to your wages and outcomes, and if you don’t do it, there are consequences—like you could lose your job, or you could get in trouble. And it’s with strangers, for the most part.”

Aunt Bernadette! This definition is perfect, I thought. I immediately sent it to a male friend who has repeatedly told me he doesn’t understand emotional labor. “AH!” he replied. “This makes so much sense.”

Emotional labor of educating him on emotional labor, complete.

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The brilliance of Grandey’s metaphor is precisely that it’s not gendered. Every adult, regardless of their gender or professional stature, has received a gift they really didn’t like. And as long as you’re not a horrible person, you’ve tried, at least once, to mask that dissatisfaction so as to make your friend or relative feel good about themselves—probably because you genuinely cared about the gift-giver’s happiness and self-confidence.

Nine times out of 10, when you fake positivity upon opening a lame gift, you’re not doing so out of maliciousness, resentment, or a deep-seated conviction that the gift-giver gave you this crap because they think they’re better, smarter, or more worthy than you. You’re doing so because you want to maintain a healthy relationship, and because you feel pressure to be caring.

The same exact philosophy applies to women calling out emotional labor at work, at home, and in Starbucks: Nine times out of 10, we don’t think you’re a soul-sucking sexist ghoul incapable of empathy or (gasp) feminism. Nor are we performing unpaid labor that makes you comfortable, happy, or more productive because we necessarily want to, or don’t want to, or because you’ve personally oppressed us. Our motivation for such labor falls somewhere between caring for you, and feeling like we have to.

Contradictory as these realities may seem, they indeed co-exist. So instead of fighting it, accept the complexity and pervasiveness of emotional labor. Express appreciation for those who do it, when they do it. In time, you might find yourself doing some, too.