The woman who created the term “emotional labor” says we’re all using it wrong

Lately, there’s been a lot of conversation about women’s “emotional labor,” which many people define as the work we do to make the lives of everyone around us easier, especially as it pertains to our traditional gender roles as wives and mothers, as outdated as those ideas may be. But apparently, we’ve all been using this phrase wrong.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, the woman who invented the term—Arlie Hochschild, who first used it in her 1983 book The Managed Heart—explained that emotional labor is actually the work of managing your emotions in your career because your job demands it of you.

Here’s the official definition of emotional labor, per Hochschild:

"Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in The Managed Heart, is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it. From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this. Teachers, nursing-home attendants, and child-care workers are examples. The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling."

This makes sense, and it’s definitely something that people in many kinds of careers can relate to. It’s just completely different from the definition of emotional labor that’s been circulating online for the last few years.

So what do we call that mental burden that many women feel as the ones who end up assigning out chores in their homes, remembering birthdays, and doing the emotional heavy lifting? Hochschild suggested that we think of those tasks as mental labor, or even just pure labor, rather than emotional labor. She said, for example, that making sure all the chores get done is mental labor. However, she added, “If there’s some management of anxiety about forgetting something, that’s the emotional-labor part of it.

Hochschild said that while she’s not a fan of the “concept creep” around emotional labor and prefers definitional clarity and precision, she is glad there’s a conversation happening around the labor-related burdens women face.

And to everyone who does actually deal with Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor in their everyday careers? Well, we can’t blame you if you don’t want to smile at every single customer who walks through the door. That kind of emotional labor is very real, and totally under-appreciated—especially during the holiday season.

Filed Under