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Putting in the Work: Reframing Emotional Labor

Opinion | October 23, 2017

The headline reads: “Woman Decides It’s Too Much Labor to Describe the Concept of Emotional Labor.” This is from Reductress, a feminist satire news site. It’s not a serious article, but it’s funny because we’ve heard people say this and mean it—people we respect, love, and value deeply.

Every once and awhile, an article gets passed around our Facebook newsfeeds called “Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It.” Published on a blogging platform called “The Orbit,” the piece was written by a person named Miri.[1] The article goes through examples of emotional labor—what it is, how people do it, what kinds of people often take on more emotional labor than others, etc. Specifically, the author focuses on cis women doing a disproportionate amount of emotional labor for cis men, especially in the context of straight romantic relationships. The article asks readers to consider questions like, “Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?” “Do I pause to observe the context (my partners body language or current activity) before I involve my partner in something me-focused?

These are everyday considerations that Miri argues become relevant when considering power imbalances along the axis of gender.[2] The language of emotional labor has been embraced in conversations around power imbalances more generally. In many cases, emotional labor is used synonymously with explaining one’s marginalized identity to someone who holds the corresponding dominant identity. For example, a person of color explaining why reverse racism isn’t real to a White person. Or, a trans person explaining the singular “they” pronoun to a cis person. These moments of explanation constitute emotional labor; people are not merely explaining ideas, but are living in and reliving trauma in order to have those conversations.

We hear the phrase emotional labor a lot these days. Back in June, a friend sent us a text that read: “can y’all explain the ‘cracking a cold one with the boys’ phenomenon to me like what it is and then a slight analysis. #emotionallabor.” How did the phrase “emotional labor” become so colloquial that it infiltrates our texts, our headlines, and even our memes?

The answer to this lies in our shifting conception of the word “labor” itself. In 1983, Arlie Hochschild was one of the first people to use the phrase “emotional labor” in the way we understand it now. In her book, The Managed Heart, Hochschild analyzed the emotional labor of service jobs in which workers are expected to maintain outward positivity and happiness—service with a smile! In Hochschild’s analysis, she focuses on the fact that the people in these professions are largely women, creating a whole category of feminized labor that is unrecognized and uncompensated.

The explicit naming of this work is a move to validate the types of labor that don’t fit neatly into traditional conceptions of what labor looks like. Labor organizing often centers physical labor—think: factory labor, agricultural labor—that is conceptualized as men’s work. So, creating a rhetoric that makes space for emotional work expands the definition of work itself. In leftist politics today, “emotional labor” is not only relevant to the emotional expenditure of service jobs, but it is also put into interpersonal relationships, teaching, and activism.

So, while the origins of “emotional labor” as a named concept in leftist politics are fairly specific, the way that the phrase is used now—see: text about cold ones meme—gestures toward a popularization of the phrase. What has the hypervisibility of emotional labor done to its meaning? To the way that we interact with our identities, our relationships, and our activism? Although the term was originally intended to give credit to unrecognized labor, we believe that the overuse of “emotional labor” in negative contexts both flattens its meaning and demonizes the act itself.

The ways that we hear the phrase “emotional labor” usually sound something like this: “Don’t ask that person to do so much emotional labor for you…” “He made me do so much emotional labor,” and “I’m sorry to ask so much emotional labor from you, but…” To be clear, there are absolutely situations in which these things are valid feelings that accurately describe a situation of power imbalance. However, if the only way we talk about emotional labor is to ask others not to do it or to say how bad it feels, we are ignoring the value of that labor and missing a key aspect of community-making and collective learning.

Emotional labor, often the work of marginalized and multiply-marginalized people, is valuable and important work. To simplify this concept is to leave the valuable and life-giving parts of it unrecognized and underutilized. For example, as White Jews having conversations with non-Jews about Zionism and antisemitism’s systemic connections with White supremacy, we have both experienced conversations in which we expend a lot of emotional energy and leave the conversation feeling validated, seen, and clarified in our own understandings of those systems.

At a Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago, we were talking about the history of Jewish organizing at Tufts, about the role of Hillel, and the ways politics cannot be extracted from our religious practices. One person had a lot of questions about this topic and asked them. A group of us responded as best we could. It felt like we were able to hold a complex array of feelings in that conversation as well as bring someone into a new understanding of the history of this campus. Later, one of us got a text from that person that read: “I am realizing that I was asking a lot from folks to explain things to me tonight so also thanks for being generous in that way.”

That show of gratitude was appreciated, but felt funny because we gained energy and momentum in that conversation. A text of this sort seemed unnecessary, and spoke to the assumption that asking people to explain something to you is work they shouldn’t have to do. However, it was not a drain, but rather a moment of compassion, learning, and growth for all of us.

We have also at times expended that energy only to have it poorly received and taken advantage of. We have at times been the ones to ask for emotional labor without recognition, without cognizance of the systemic power we hold. The key here is to remember that “emotional labor” does not have inherent connotation; it is not good or bad in and of itself. Rather, the systems that characterize it (namely: racial capitalism, the system that exploits the workers Hochschild writes about in 1983) have co-opted the idea in order to preclude its community-building potential. Ideally, we would get to choose when to do emotional labor, but seeing emotional labor as wholly negative impedes its possible positive outcomes. Emotional labor can be a sign of care and an act of solidarity that forms the basis of our collective movements.

However, the language we use to talk about emotional labor often does not align with the anti-capitalist ideals of labor and leftist movements. Rather, it has taken on the language of capitalism itself. “I’m really investing a lot of emotional labor in this person.” “I spent so much time talking him through his break-up.” “I just did so much emotional labor, that was so taxing.”

The feminist use of “emotional labor” as a concept attempts to subvert capitalism by expanding our conception of “labor” to include work done by those most disenfranchised by capitalist society. In this way, speaking of emotional labor in the rhetoric of capitalism completely misunderstands and undermines the goal of naming this phenomenon.

We do not want this article to read as putting down anyone who speaks about the difficulty of emotional labor or anyone who refuses to perform that labor. This is not a call for the kind of “open dialogue” that asks those most marginalized to do work for their/our oppressors. Rather, this is a push to say that emotional labor is important, that it can give life and not just drain it, and that it can exist outside of a capitalistic framework. We need emotional labor to foster friendships, build solidarity, destroy capitalism, and envision a new future.



[1] Miri has redacted her last name from her articles after receiving rape and death threats.

[2] Often, emotional labor is talked about through the lens of binary gender. Recently, many have begun to say “women and femmes” when referring to gendered labor in order to include transfemmes in the discussion of emotional labor. This phrase simultaneously erases the emotional labor of transmasculine and gender non conforming people who are neither women nor femmes, and includes us into a framework that categorizes us as “women or femmes.” Centering the discussion of emotional labor around solely the axis of gender also invisibilizes the emotional labor put disproportionately on people of color.