Sooner or later, most jobs require us to exhibit some emotion that we don’t necessarily feel. Flight attendants and waiters are supposed to smile when they hand you a drink; bill collectors are supposed to scare you into coming across with the cash. Nurses and preschool teachers are supposed to be comforting, even loving. When your job requires playing a part, though, it’s hard to figure out where you begin and your job ends. The experience can be alienating, even dehumanizing.
Award-winning UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book The Managed Heart, coined the term “emotional labor” to describe the curious situation where “seeming to love the job becomes part of the job.”
This concept has been in the air lately. Josh Eidelson wrote in The Nation about D.C.-area Starbucks baristas exhorted to support a corporate pro-austerity campaign by physically writing a slogan on cups. “CEOs hawking ‘shared sacrifice’ are a dime a dozen,” Eidelson noted. “A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if–like so much in the American workplace–it’s coerced.”
Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic about how Pret A Manger requires its employees to master “Pret behaviors,” such as “has presence,” “creates a sense of fun,” and “is happy to be themself.” Yes–in order to sell you a bacon sandwich, employees must be fully self-actualized. And the amount that they touch fellow-employees is considered to be a positive indicator of sales, not a red flag for sexual-harassment lawsuits.
Usually we only think of emotional labor as belonging to the low-wage service economy. In fact, economist Nancy Folbre argued in her great book The Invisible Heart that the reason that jobs like preschool teacher and social worker are so low-paid and devalued is precisely because they require so much emotional labor. If you have to love the job to do it well, the logic goes, then we don’t want people to be in it for the money.
But as Hochschild wrote, “most of us have jobs that require some handling of other peoples’ feelings and our own, and in that sense we are all partly flight attendants.” Emotional labor exists even in the startup world, which is supposed to prize authenticity and pure technical skill. Lauren Bacon, a web developer, technology entrepreneur, and author, wrote in the Huffington Post last week about technology and “empathy work”–the unpaid, not-part-of-the-job description stuff that (usually) women do in the startup world, by, for example, bringing the team together, projecting a positive image in their spare time on social media, or reminding everyone to eat lunch.
Bacon sees women in tech companies often being marginalized to “”people” roles like HR, communications, project management, admin, and user experience. “One could almost–if one were feeling cheeky–rename these roles employee empathy, customer empathy, team empathy, user empathy, and boss empathy: all of them require deep skills in emotional intelligence, verbal and written communications, and putting oneself in the shoes of others,” she says. All this work is crucial to a company’s success, but valued at a lower level than the hard-core coding.
Is there any way to make peace with the emotional heavy lifting that our jobs may require? Bacon suggests that employers and job candidates do a better job of talking about and adequately valuing people skills and not offloading all the emotional labor to a few people. For individuals, choosing a job that’s a good fit for your natural temperament is important. But so is spending enough time away from work to find out how you really feel.
[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]