Emotional labour taking toll on workers
“We pay attention to the filigreed patterns of feeling and their management.”
“Emotional labour” is on the way out in certain parts of the economy and roaring back in others. It is how we work now. Its most basic unit is the smile.
It refers to jobs where the skill set is both the absorbing and displaying of emotion. It is ubiquitous. It is draining. In the wrestling ring that is the modern workplace, it leads to burnout.
The great American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild came up with the phrase more than 30 years ago to describe what she saw in the Delta Airlines “Stewardess Training Centre.” Oh, she saw smiling. Women — it is still women who do most of this work — were trained to smile, coddle, and endure on long flights with intolerable passengers.
Little has changed. A woman becomes White House press secretary because she’s peppy and chirpy and tells stories about a little boy named Pickle. Women have their uses.
In 2012, Hochschild updated her great book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, to cover the coming wave of automation that is killing these jobs and the growth of the personal care sector that is expanding them. Boomers need attendants as they age, but right now they are paying them very little.
Most interestingly, Hochschild refers to the work of “toxin handlers,” who are complaints clerks, bankruptcy court personnel, home foreclosers, divorce lawyers and parking meter attendants. If they had existed then, she would have described the work of American Airlines staff who police the company’s Twitter feed, where they cope with people like Lena Dunham.
Dunham is the distilled essence of people who don’t understand emotional labour while abusing those who actually do it. A feminist, she complained about two female employees she overheard having a private conversation that she disliked.
“Hi!” she direct-messaged American. “I heard 2 female attendants walking talking (an acting term) about how trans kids are a trend they’d never accept a trans child and transness is gross ... What if a trans teen was walking behind them?”
But a trans teen wasn’t. Dunham was.
“At this moment in history we should be teaching our employees about love and inclusivity,” she told the airline. Dunham reported details about the women’s location that might help American track them down and punish them.
Dunham then tweeted the clincher. “Here’s my takeaway: these days it’s the little things. A smile. Offering a seat. Respect.” It was all very 1962.
Lena Dunham is a rich person who built her career on family connections in the New York arts world and then hired the children of wealthy famous New Yorkers to act in her TV series Girls. Yet she listened in on the private conversation of two ill-paid women clinging to their jobs and snitched.
She referred to “our employees,” she and American apparently being the rich who can teach workers the proper political stance (hers) on social issues. Worse, she suggested they do more emotion work, smiling and being sweet.
Emotional labour is managing feelings. American Airlines Twitter staff have to manage Dunham’s feelings, as well as their own about Dunham. “Thanks for the info, Lena.”
In Shoppers Drug Mart, I always choose the store clerk over self-service, even though the store rations its cashiers so as to push you to the machines. Automation will win. I used to regret this.
But after Dunham, I wonder if I’m wrong. If automation rescues workers from the emotional labour demanded by Dunhams, maybe that’s liberating. Bank tellers don’t resent ATMs, I notice. Perhaps their interludes with clueless customers do not please them.
Most of us, including Uber drivers, do work that requires emotional labour, Hochschild writes. “Economic history cannot be fully understood unless we pay attention to the filigreed patterns of feeling and their management.” I’d add “political history,” meaning the Trump White House.
Emotional labour is done by bloggers who marketize their private life, columnists who tell personal stories, pregnancy surrogates, nannies who block out memories of the baby girl they left in their home country and smile gratefully at a $10 Starbucks gift card at Christmas from the wealthy employer who will fire her for disobedience, i.e. faulty housecleaning.
Emotional labour is exhausting and damaging to the soul, because it is a falsity, hard to shake in the off-hours. Emotion workers should get hardship pay.
We are all flight attendants now, working harder, earning less and acting as if we couldn’t be happier.