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I asked my Patreons what they’d like me to write about. Susanne wrote: ‘I’m just learning about “emotional labour”. I’d be interested to hear your take on it.’ Sure, Susanne, here goes! 

The other day, I was sitting next to a man at a dinner party who worked for BT. He told me he was working on a trial to introduce mindfulness in its UK call centres. It’s obviously quite a stressful job, dealing with irate customers all day, and he hoped that a 20-minute online guided mindfulness session at the start of each day would help BT’s 80,000 employees – and, specifically, those in call centres – feel better, work better, and be less likely to fall sick or quit.

He was a idealistic, intelligent young man, but I knew this initiative was the sort to elicit groans from some of my academic peers. Sociologists, in particular, tend to view corporate well-being initiatives like this as neoliberal attempts to shift responsibility for employees’ suffering onto the employees. Mental illness and burn-out isn’t a consequence of poor working conditions or structural inequalities, in this manoeuvre – it’s a consequence of your own attitudes. An hour or two of expensive well-being coaching, and you can return to the trenches with a smile on your face.

Academic hostility to corporate well-being initiatives have a long history, but a key text is The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, written by American sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild in 1983. Hochschild introduced the concept of ’emotional labour’, which is the theory that, as western economies become increasingly service-dominated, new forms of work arise that demand a lot of emotional work and social performance. She spent several months studying Delta air stewardesses, and the emotional training they were put through to prepare them to deal with customers.

Back in the 1980s, trainee stewardesses would be sent on the Delta Self-Awareness Class, which taught them about ‘thought-processes, actions and feelings’. The trainer worked the room ‘in the manner of a Southern Baptist minister’, urging the ‘girls’ to ‘go out there and really smile’. They would be trained to try and see difficult situations from the customer’s perspective, to imagine all the difficulties in their life that are making them act like a total jerk.

Hochschild wrote: ‘Managing feeling was taken as the problem. The causes of anger were not acknowledged as part of the problem. Nor were the overall conditions of work – the crew size, the virtual exclusion of blacks and men, the required accommodation to sexism…The only question to be seriously discussed was ‘how do you rid yourself of anger?’

She argued that jobs involving high levels of emotional labour were more likely to be done by women. The stewardess, in fact, was required to play a role somewhere between a mother and a geisha for their spoilt male customers. You can see that in the adverts for airlines at the time, and indeed, today. Here are a few:

To survive and prosper amid these emotional expectations, stewardesses must learn to ‘deep act’, not just to smile, but to transform their attitudes and feelings for the role, while mentally detaching their ‘secret self’. They may also seek small revenges on the difficult customer, or resist the corporate injunction to smile constantly. Customers may also stop believing in the performance, realizing it’s just a show.

In the last few years, feminists have seized on the theory to argue that women today bear more than their share of emotional labour, in the workplace and at home, and it’s usually unpaid.

What are we to make of the theory? I don’t know how new or radical it was even in 1983. One of the foundational ideas in sociology, going back through Norbert Elias and Erving Goffman, through Marx and Rousseau, all the way back to Plato, is the theory of alienation: in a liberal, capitalist civilization (perhaps in any human society), we’re required to construct a ‘fake self’ to win others’ approval.

Elias analysed this in court politics in his book The Civilizing Process (1939): the courtier must learn to suppress their feelings, smile, and act a part, as everyone from Seneca to Shakespeare noted. As the ‘civilizing process’ spread and the capitalist economy developed, we’ve all became actors.

Most jobs involve their own peculiar emotional labour: soldier, chef, musician, diplomat, writer, teacher, surgeon, priest, spy. But we used to look to novelists, rather than sociologists, to articulate it (I’m reading Le Carre’s new novel and have long enjoyed his exploration of the emotional labour of spying).

Yet Hochschild did apply her theory to the service workplace, and to women’s work particularly, much as Betty Friedan deconstructed the ennui of being an American housewife in The Feminine Mystique, 20 years earlier.

In general, I am wary of sociologists’ insistence that consumer capitalism is basically rubbish, and any attempt to ‘get ahead’ is false consciousness. How does that idea prepare young people for any career, besides being a grumpy sociologist? No wonder sociology graduates earn among the lowest salaries after graduating, with only 30% employed six months after graduating.

Not only is it a bad message to give young people, it’s a dyspeptic view of consumer capitalism, which I happen to like. I lived in Russia in the mid-Noughties, where the service economy is still nascent – when the first McDonalds opened in Moscow in 1990, the locals thought the staff were mad because they smiled so much. The customer service in Russia can be terrible. Aeroflot air stewards and stewardesses back then were terrifying. They’re even worse on the state-run trains – I was once shoved onto a train by a hefty stewardess when I asked if I was boarding in the right carriage. As the economy became liberalized, the service in Moscow gradually improved – the same thing is apparent now in India. That empowers the consumer. 

As for the employee, we need to find the job that fits our personality. I was fired from Harrods’ luggage department when I was 18, because of basic incompetence. But some people are just really good sales-people, and get a kick out of it. They’re not being phony at work, they’re drawing on their natural extroversion and affability, or their genuine love of the product. Some people are naturally empathetic, and more likely to become therapists. Some people are naturally introvert and cynical, and are more likely to become freelance journalists or academics. There are many different emotional cultures out there, and you need to find the one that fits you.

Delta’s Self-Awareness Training Class sounds different to today’s wellbeing-at-work initiatives, which are less about teaching employees how to play a role, and more about trying to help them understand how their emotions arise and how they can transform them using techniques like breathing, visualization or cognitive re-appraisal. These techniques can be taught clumsily and harmfully, but when taught well, they could actually strengthen employees’ autonomy and capacity to improve working conditions.

What about Hoschchild’s point that emotional labour tends to be mainly done by women, and to be financially unrewarded?

There are some jobs where women greatly outnumber men – 87% of nurses in the NHS are women; around 70% of counsellors and therapists, 75% of the HR industry, and 78% of the publishing industry are women. 80% of the 42 million prostitutes in the world are women. In fact, scrolling down a list of professions by gender split, women do seem to dominate in roles that require interpersonal skills, while men predominate in jobs that are more cognitive analytical (computing, science, engineering) and are also over-represented in senior management roles, which require both interpersonal and cognitive analytical skills. I think / hope that interpersonal skills are increasingly financially valued in employees and management.

I don’t know if the fact the therapy sector is overwhelmingly female is because of socially constructed gender roles or biological differences in empathy (about which, see this, this and this). But there’s such variation within genders –  here I am, a straight man, spilling my guts out to you every week, while female friends of mine work in engineering, tech, politics, law, and are not necessarily way more emotionally sophisticated than their partners. As men take on more of the emotional labour of parenting, I think they / we are appreciating quite how draining it is.

The main challenge to Hochschild’s thesis, today, comes from the outsourcing of emotional labour to machines. In 1983, she was writing in the wake of Daniel Bell’s classic Post-Industrial Society (1973), which argued that ‘the fact that individuals now talk to each other, rather than interact with a machine, is the fundamental fact about work in post-industrial society’.  But, in her 2003 edition, Hoschchild admitted that ‘large parts of the ’emotional proletariat’ are being automated out’.

Think how many jobs which used to require personal interaction are now automated: information, sales, ordering in McDonalds, therapy apps, checking-in for flights, call centres and help-lines. Automated taxis are surely not far away. Many customers, in fact, prefer to interact with a machine than a human (although most still prefer humans). Many employees would prefer their boss to be a machine than a human. We train machines to read our emotions, and look to them for the consolation of our loneliness and the gratification of our desires. It’s interesting, considering Hoschhild’s thesis, how many of the new emo-robots are feminine, from Alexa to Siri. 

When humans do work with each other, we increasingly do it through the safety of our screens. Face-to-face interaction? It’s just too much emotional labour.