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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

The danger of academic terms falling to common parlance: "Emotional Labour" a response

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

I read the BBC3 article on "Emotional Labour" being a key word in 2018 with interest as this was the very subject of my PhD thesis.

Emotional labour was defined in the 80's in "The Managed Heart" by Arlie Russell Hochschild as the behaviour a service (customer facing) worker performs through managing his or her "...feeling to create a publically observable facial and bodily display...This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honour as deep and integral to our individuality." (Hochschild, 2003:7). For Hochschild, emotional labour was constructed as the outward display of emotion that fits organisational norms. Sometimes, she proposed, those "norms" are defined by "display rules" that performers of emotional labour may share (eg. a nurse presents as a "sympathetic" or "approachable" person; or "feeling rules" within the context of everyday life eg. a bride is supposed to feel happy on her wedding day (Hochschild, 2003:60).

One of Hochschild's strongest claims is that emotional labour causes emotional strain for workers who perform it, because an organisation's display rules may be at variance with one's true feelings. She concedes that an element of "Managing feeling is an art fundamental to civilised living."...but also that "In private life we are free to question the going rate of exchange and free to negotiate a new one. If we are not satisfied, we can leave...But in the public world of work, it is often part of the individual's job to accept uneven exchanges....all the while closeting into fantasy the anger one would like to respond with." (Hochschild, 2003:86).

The question raised in the article was whether the term emotional labour could be extended to include the "stay at home parent" and the stuggle that people of colour, or LGBT people may face in the workplace. Indeed the article acknowledges that Hochschild did not wish it to be applied to housework (and her statement about how private life differs from public goes some way to explain her thinking), and within its last paragraphs draws attention to an article by Haley Swenson:

"In her Slate article titled 'Please stop calling everything that frustrates you emotional labour', Haley Swenson writes that the phrase is "used and abused as a catchall for what are either pretty complex, sticky situations or just straightforward cases of male helplessness".

She adds: "In our rush to bring greater awareness to gender frustrations that we’re just beginning to talk about publicly, we should remember that not all kinds of gender and relationship problems are in fact, emotional labour."" (Wilkinson, 2018)

I am inclined to agree with Swenson and Hochschild.

I have recently published "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness" and spent much of the introductory chapter looking at the discussion surrounding the term. Yes, it arose through Buddhist meditative practice, but as with terms which may also derive through religion eg "hope", science has not quite codified it, and like "hope", being "mindful" is used in everyday parlance. As such - and because my book seeks to promote applied mindfulness techniques - my conclusion was to let the academics argue about the frame - we will use practically what we can use in order to be more aware of ourselves, our surroundings and our impact on them.

This is where I have to question the issue with "emotional labour".

Emotional labour is already codified by Hochschild. It already has a clear definition.

It is similar to the use of the DSM V or ICD10 to diagnose mental illness. You cannot describe yourself as being clinically "depressed" (or clinically... ADHD, Borderline, Aspergers, OCD etc) without fulfilling the very clear criteria set out. This is essential to practice and treatment - as well as financial support - because it could otherwise be irresponsible or detrimental to intervene.

For me, this is where "emotional labour" differs from "mindfulness". There is a clear definition.

Now, of course all definitions continue to be revised - the DSM is on version V, and the ICD version 10, but this is a long process involving hugely experienced clinicians - as well as, of course, reports from, and observations of, their patients.

However, in the same way as a revision of clinical diagnostic criteria needs field expertise, I would argue that the extension of already defined terminology (through research) needs academia.

Not only that, but in this case I would also suggest that by terming "emotional labour" what could be better described and responded to as "racism", "sexism", "bullying", "harrassment", "abuse" - then we are doing a huge disservice to the people suffering such treatment, and sweeping a societal problem under (yet another) carpet. Swenson is right, not all discrimination is "emotional labour" - it is very often discrimination!

Part of my role as resident psychologist on The Chrissy B Show is to define the terminology of the topic eg. in a show about "secondary trauma" - then I mentioned its academic definition as well as its colloquial use. Perhaps this sounds pedantic, but this accuracy is important to practitioners and academics.

If we allow science-defined terms to intermingle with common parlance we at best misapply the terms so it becomes meaningless, and at worst address it ineffectively while doing a huge disservice to what is actually going on!

"Emotional labour" is defined as part of a customer facing job - and sadly, we do face unpleasantness. The negative behaviour that people experience specifically due to their gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference is at the very least discrimination, and never part of a job description.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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