Emotional labor is an important term – but I mostly use it to get myself out of there | Emma Brockes
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LLike many people, for many years I said yes to things I didn’t want to do. It was a combination of conditioning – it pays to be “nice” – a vague fear of missing out and basic conflict avoidance. Without thinking much about it, it seemed to me that there was no easy way to turn things down without offending or going against my own personality. Hostage negotiators and business people presumably had workarounds to this inhibition, but whatever tactics they used were not available to the rest of us. All we had growing up was the maxim “Just say no” – a slogan so unnecessary that it became a universally recognized joke that lasted for decades.
Much has changed since then. Over the past 10 years, a language has developed, mainly from social justice and feminist movements, but also from academia, to describe states of unease that have become opaque and our right to resist them.
Chief among these are terms that manage to describe the more intangible end of work inequality. While the term “sexism” was popularized in the late 1960s to frame basic double standards between men and women, modern iterations seek more subtle disparities. Years before the phrase “mental burden” took off I remember a friend describing, through thousands of words, how her husband was “very good” at taking care of 50% of the childcare. , while relying entirely on her as a superior. (The example she used stuck with me: he would have, she said, “happily” children at a weekend birthday party, but it would not have occurred to her in a million years ago that they had to show up with gifts, which needed to be bought and wrapped.)
The sentences that have evolved to address this imbalance are good and work. In fact, “mental load” and its adjacent term “emotional work” work so well that they have been absorbed into everyday use and have quickly lost much of their original meaning. Emotional labor was apparently coined in the 1980s in academia to describe service industry jobs requiring the imitation of cheerful behavior. It doesn’t mean that now. With an easy-to-trigger app, you can add this phrase to almost any situation, conversation, or obligation that you’d rather not be involved in, and feel gloriously aggrieved.
I say this without judgment. I do it all the time. My favorite, and by far the most useful, of these new phrases is the phrase, “I’m not comfortable with this. It’s just awesome. It can get you out of almost anything. It alludes to an unspeakable trigger event and, as such, prevents most pushbacks. It also has in its favor this particularly American mark of officialdom which evokes my other favorite word, “borders”. One can let go of the nasty people left, right and center these days by using the word “limits” while escaping any guilt feelings. I’m not mean: I’m just protecting myself from your inadequate boundaries.
Clearly this no-get-out card is not how the language was intended to be used, although I am inclined to think – perhaps delusively – that even in diluted form the bottom line is is still good. Being able to politely withdraw from something without tying any knots is helpful, especially for socialized women to comply. Feeling less responsible for the unruly emotions of other adults is also a good thing. Common use of these terms is also an expression of individualistic self-advancement that has little or nothing to do with the power imbalance for which language was created. The real-world application of academic language is notoriously sloppy and can lead to bizarre reversals; it is no different.
And yet, once started, it’s almost impossible to stop. You don’t even have to say the words, you just have to think them. A small example that I always try to deal with. Some time ago I received a very long and angry email from a woman accusing me of insulting her. The offending interaction had occurred two years earlier, and although her email seemed unreasonable, she was clearly upset and I was, at first, alarmed. I don’t have to engage with everyone who asks; however, the dismay was real, and maybe I could appease it if I spent enough time responding. Hesitantly, I passed it all on to a friend, who took a look and made a summary judgment. “She’s asking you to do emotional labor,” he said, and bingo, I was off the hook. Not only off the hook, but just indignant: I do not answer; he’s a vampire; Case closed.
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