A server smiles and soothes an angry customer who wasn’t happy with his meal. A mom gently coaxes her toddler out of a tantrum when dad can’t deal with it. A woman visits her ill father-in-law in the hospital because her partner can’t go there without feeling upset.
Each is an example of “emotional labor,” or putting another’s feelings and desires before your own. This kind of work is important, and essential—but, according to journalist Rose Hackman in her new book Emotional Labor, often invisible. First coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, “emotional labor” was initially used to describe the “specific form of work expected of workers in the service industry,” Hackman says.
In the decades since, the term has expanded—and in 2015, “emotional labor” entered the mainstream to include all of the emotional work that happens at home and in communities, as well. “To me it didn’t make sense to separate out the two,” Hackman says. “If anything, it hurt the overall point. We don’t call physical labor in private something different than physical labor for a fee,” Hackman says. (Hochschild has endorsed Hackman’s book).
Hackman describes emotional labor as “the editing work of emotions that someone would do in order to have an effect on the emotions of someone else.” It happens in formal as well as informal settings, but is often “offloaded onto women,” or other disadvantaged groups in society. She says that even if this kind of work is noticed, it still goes unpaid. And if we continue to ignore and devalue it, we are exacerbating inequality.
While it’s difficult to quantify emotional labor, feminist economists use time-use surveys to track leisure time. In 2018, men averaged 49 minutes more leisure time a day than women did. Leisure time has gone up for men and down for women. Studies also show that women predominantly plan household activities and also do “mental work” at home—things like creating grocery lists and reminding their partner to bring the car in for an oil change. While none of those tasks are purely emotional, they can all involve putting other people’s feelings and needs ahead of your own. And while that’s often necessary in partnerships, the empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that women as a group are far more likely to do that than men as a group, as Hackman documents in her book.
I talked with Hackman, a Detroit-based British journalist who has written for The Guardian, about why emotional labor has been so easy to dismiss, how devaluing it has hurt men, and how it is tied into a patriarchal system, among other subjects. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.
Hope Reese: How does emotional labor contribute to the economy?
Rose Hackman: For quite a few decades, feminist economists have thought about two forms of work—productive work, including work that produces goods and services, and reproductive work, or the work that reproduces the population. And that’s going to be education, health care, domestic work, etc.
But the truth is that, fundamentally, humans don’t just need a roof over their heads or food to eat. They need a sense of love, connection, community, and belonging. All humans, regardless of gender, are relational. We all need relationships with other humans to survive.
So when I say that emotional labor is the ultimate enabler of work, I mean that humans, in order to even become workers, need to have received a huge amount of emotional labor. And as they go to work, we’re assuming that they’re going to be getting a lot of emotional labor when they come home from work. We’re assuming that there’s going to be people caring for their needs, whether it’s domestic needs like eating and sleeping, but also their mental and emotional needs.
HR: Over the last several decades, there’s been a lot of gender progress—women have entered the workforce en masse and many are financially independent. Where does emotional labor fit into that?
RH: Today, women represent just over half of the college-educated workforce in America. If you look at jobs in the formal economy—for example, in the service sector or the health care industry—emotional labor is a big part of those jobs. Basically, providing other people with experiences, editing your emotions in order to have an effect on the emotions of other people. Those kinds of jobs are largely performed by women. For instance, women constitute an extraordinary 78% of workers in the health care and social assistance industries. If you just look at child day care services, 95% of the workers there are women. Domestic workers are 90% women. In the restaurant and bar industries, women are a majority of the workforce and are especially concentrated in entry-level positions that are customer-facing.
Emotional labor is not a bad thing. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a thing that, ideally, everyone should be doing. But why is it that we still offload emotional labor on to women? Any kind of work seen as “feminized” is seen as having little value. And if we don’t see it, we can continue to offload it on to women and groups with less power, without any accountability.
HR: I often hear stories of women taking on difficult caretaking roles—helping, for instance, an elderly parent or a child—and often they say, or maybe their husband would say, “Well, they’re really good at it,” or they “really want to do it.” If they are choosing it, how is it still a problem?
RH: Being good at a form of work doesn’t make it not work. I could be really good at math and become a data analyst. And no one is going to tell me that because I am just good at math, when I go and work in an investment bank as a data analyst, it’s not actual work—because I’m just good at it. That’s an argument that is used unilaterally for women and is never used for men. The truth is women do tend to be better at these types of skills because we’ve been incentivized from a very young age to execute these kinds of tough caregiving tasks. We are expected to be other-oriented, as a gender. If we are not other-oriented, we are corrected. We are policed. Not just by our own, let’s say, parents or family units. We are going to be policed out in the world. A woman who is seen as ambitious is seen as a threat. She’s seen as aggressive. She’s probably going to be penalized in the white-collar workforce, as being aggressive, leaning in, is not enough to get ahead. You also have to express a lot of caring attributes, have to be very docile—even as you are competent and competent.
The truth is, if men were incentivized to be more empathetic and more giving—if emotional labor was associated with higher status—a huge amount of neuroscientific research and psychology research shows that men are just as able to be good at emotional labor as women. It’s just that they don’t have the same kind of crack of the whip behind them, the way that women do.
HR: Emotional labor is part of the patriarchal system, but it’s also part of bigger structures of inequality, like white supremacy. How do these things converge?
RH: Patriarchy, fundamentally, is a system where men hold all the positions of power. That means that government leaders, heads of industry, people who have political, economic, social power, tend to be men. One of the ways in which you can understand the continuing functioning of a patriarchy is a society in which men benefit from the free labor of women. And in the case of emotional labor, they’re not just benefiting from the free labor of women, but they’re benefiting from the free labor of women that, as a society, we don’t even give the dignity of calling actual work.
A huge way in which this extraction of labor is extraordinarily beneficial to men and how patriarchy, at large, is able to continue, is that we refuse to accept that emotional labor is real in spite of all the evidence that exists that shows that obviously it’s extraordinarily valuable. In terms of white supremacy—that invisible extraction of labor means that corporations continue to turn a huge profit. That means that governments and societies continue to exist without really anyone holding them accountable for the extractive coercive labor that they’re forcing on to women and people of color. That’s happening, especially to people who lack power.
Emotional labor is not just editing your expression of your emotions to have an effect on the emotions of other people, but to actively put your emotions to work for other people, serving other people.
Ideally, that’s part of a society and there’s a spreading out of the load. But in a society that’s very unequal, anyone who has less power is going to be expected to do way more. It’s not just women serving the emotions of men—in this system of unequal distribution of emotional labor, we expect, for example, a Black man to accommodate the feelings of a white man. We expect a Black man very likely to accommodate the feelings of a white woman. We expect an immigrant woman, by her very stereotypes, to provide emotional labor and a whole bunch of other work, for little to nothing, to white people in general, including white women.
Emotional labor isn’t just a gendered problem. It’s a problem that expresses the unequal states that we’re in.
HR: Many men today are experiencing setbacks—lower wages, declining employment—yet they are still part of a patriarchal system. How do you explain this to men who say, “Wait, we’re also struggling here?”
RH: The fact that you have one form of privilege does not mean that you have all forms of privilege. For example, I live in the heart of Detroit, a city that has a huge amount of poverty that has been generationally imposed. Once upon a time, this was the birth of the middle class. This is definitely no longer the case in Detroit. This is a town with a slim middle class and lots of people struggling economically. Whether it’s white men who are living in River Rouge or Black men who are living in Detroit, obviously, they have within the broader system very little privilege. But, for example, if they’re heterosexual at home, they still expect a certain level of service. They definitely still expect the women in their lives to cater to their experiences in a way that they will not expect to cater to theirs.
I know this because I interviewed a lot of women in Detroit who talked about their family lives. That’s one of the things that flipped the script. One of the pushbacks I got when I first started looking into emotional labor is that this was just a petty concern of middle-class white women who didn’t have anything left to complain about. But I live in the middle of the country and I’m an inequality journalist, and the women who connected to this issue the most were actually working-class Black women, who were often carrying entire families along, not just financially, but emotionally.
They were expected to do an enormous amount of emotional labor that was extraordinarily invisible. They were maybe nursing assistants during the day, which is a huge amount of emotional labor that is not really properly paid for. And they were going home at night and doing an extra shift.
I have a huge amount of empathy for men who feel like there are losers in the system. And I think we can all agree that the system has failed a huge amount of people, including men. But that doesn’t mean that when it comes to familial dynamics, that they aren’t benefiting, to a certain extent, from the free labor of women.
And where they aren’t, then I would argue it’s from this patriarchal belief that men shouldn’t have emotions and so therefore they shouldn’t tend to themselves and actually take care of their emotional lives. They shouldn’t talk about how they feel, they shouldn’t develop emotional literacy from a young age. What we know is that when men, boys are told that they should not cry, that they should not express themselves across a broad range of emotions, then they find it very hard to deal with a very hard world. Suicide is the highest among middle-aged white men, in the U.S.
And I would argue that because of the devaluing and the invisibility of emotional labor and of the importance of emotional labor, they have basically been cut off from their emotional selves—as a result of which, they’re actually dying. I know that that seems extreme, but I actually believe that. A society that actually values love and connection and does not shame people by meeting each other’s needs is a society that thrives. And a society that shames men for actually needing help and needing love and care and connection is a society that is deeply in crisis.