The person who coined the term “emotional labor” says we’re getting it all wrong

This isn’t it.
This isn’t it.
Image: Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich
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The term “emotional labor” has evolved over the past few years into a catchall term for the unpaid, unrecognized work of organizing and managing a household, team, family, or relationship—especially when it’s performed by women.

In its current usage, emotional labor can describe anything from managing the family social calendar to directing household chores to keeping track of endless mental grocery and to-do lists.

That work is real. But it’s not what sociologist Arlie Hochschild was thinking of when she coined the term 35 years ago.

Hochschild, the visionary author of books including The Second Shift and Strangers in Their Own Land, spoke recently with Atlantic senior editor Julie Beck about the use and misuse of a term she first described in her 1983 book The Managed Heart.

According to Hochschild, emotional labor referred to the act of managing one’s emotions and affect at work in order to suit the expectations of a job. Though the friendly compassion implicitly demanded of flight attendants, nurses, caregivers, and hospitality workers certainly qualifies, the term wasn’t just shorthand for “putting on a happy face.” Hochschild also interviewed bill collectors whose job required the performance of harshness or aggression they didn’t actually feel.

Hochschild intended the term to refer to the work a person does to manage their own emotions in the context of a job. Keeping one’s cool externally when going about a necessary if stressful task? That’s emotional labor. Remembering birthdays, oil change appointments, and the family chore schedule, however, is not. It’s mental labor.

But this semantic difference isn’t what bothers Hochschild, who told Beck she was “horrified” by the expansion of the term to encompass virtually any unpleasant or uncompensated task. “I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor,” she said. “But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied.”

First of all, emotional labor doesn’t necessarily mean unpaid labor. Like manual labor, emotional labor is an expected (if unacknowledged) requirement of many professional roles, and the ability to perform it well is a skill that can be sold for wages.

And like its physical counterpart, work that requires emotional effort can be as rewarding as it is challenging. “This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality,” Hochschild wrote in The Managed Heart

It’s not that the problems “emotional labor” is applied to aren’t real or important, Hochschild said—it’s that we’re too often slapping the same term on starkly different issues, and then wondering why we can’t have a productive conversation about them.

What’s going on, she asked Beck, when things like Christmas shopping for children or remembering family birthdays start to feel like drudgery instead of fun? Why is actual labor like housework or childcare so often called “emotional” labor simply because it’s being performed by a woman? How can necessary mental labor like remembering oil changes and doctor appointments be more equitably divided?

“We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with blunt concept,” Hochschild said. “I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way. If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself.”