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Ask Jules: what is ’emotional labour’?

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.

Derren Brown on hypnosis, faith-healing and religious experience

22578_fullI’ve been exploring the history of ecstasy in modern culture. One of the ways the Enlightenment tried to naturalize ecstasy was by developing the concept of hypnosis. In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer showed that he could achieve just as miraculous healings as a priest through his own rituals, the success of which he attributed to ‘magnetic fluids’. Then, in the late-19th century, psychologists like Pierre Janet and William James thought that Mesmerism – or hypnosis, as it was then known – tapped into a ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal self’ beyond our rational control, the existence of which explained many religious and paranormal phenomena, like faith-healing, visions, and trances. Like Mesmer, they thought that hypnotic states could often be profoundly healing, and could perhaps connect us to God.

Today, few academic psychologists explore this fascinating terrain, but one person who does is Derren Brown, the mentalist and stage-magician. I went to Derren’s extraordinary house, the interior decoration for which includes a stuffed giraffe and a fish-tank with moray eels, to ask him what he thinks is the relationship between hypnosis and religious experience, and how his new show, Miracle, explores faith-healing.

You were Christian when you were a child?

Yes. I went to a Crusaders Class when I was six or seven. A teacher who I really liked said ‘do you want to come along?’, and I was too young to think that was weird, I thought that was what everyone did. My family wasn’t religious, and I had one Christian friend, so there was never any cultural pressure. As a teenager, I went to church called the New Life Christian Centre in Croydon, a big happy-clappy church. I became more skeptical while I was at Bristol University, partly because I became fascinated by hypnosis, which my church friends deeply disapproved of. They thought it was from the Devil. I thought ‘if the human mind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why is exploring it bad?’ I also became more skeptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me skeptical of the church too. And I went on a ‘Christian gay cure’ course  – sort of a basic psychology course – and it didn’t work. So all this made me more skeptical.

Did you ever have a ‘Holy Spirit encounter’?

A photo from a New Life church service
A Pentecostal church service

No not really. I had a lot of skepticism towards those kinds of charismatic services. I think this is quite common among people who attend those services. Talking in tongues, for example – it was quite evident, if you were at all intelligent and not just hyper-suggestible and caught up in the whole thing, that there was a lot of crowd manipulation going on. There would be a point in the service when the Holy Spirit was moving through everybody, and every week the same woman stood up and talked in tongues. And then someone else stood up and offered an interpretation, which was largely a series of general statements, you know ‘the door is open…revival is coming’. It was always the same people, and the tongues always sounded the same. It became a bit comical. One time, we were told we were all going to be given the gift of tongues, so we all stood up, and the pastor said, ‘just start making a noise. That’s tongues. If a little voice tells you this is stupid, that’s the Devil.’ It seemed so blatantly manipulative.

Do you think charismatic churches are doing some form of hypnotic suggestion?

Channel-4-Upfronts-Conference-2010-Derren-BrownYes, I do. But it’s complicated. It’s difficult to pin down what hypnosis is. In a show, for example, you have a wide range of experiences in the audience. At the end of my shows, I used to make myself invisible [to hypnotized participants on stage], then I’d move a chair through the air. And the participants would all react, jump back, and so on. Later in the show, I’d often get those people back up, and say ‘what were you experiencing?’ And you’d get a range of experiences. Perhaps a third would say ‘I could see you were there, but it was very easy to go along with it and sort of play-act’. Then you’d get a middle third who would say ‘looking back on it, of course you were moving it, but at the time, I really believed you weren’t there, and was just focusing on the chair’. And then you get people at the upper extreme saying ‘no idea what you’re talking about, I assumed you moved the chair with wires’. They couldn’t believe I was there at all. And you never quite know if they’re just saying that, to appear the most hypnotized.

It’s so difficult to tie down what hypnosis is – there’s a lot of work asking if hypnosis is just role-playing. A famous example is that you can hypnotise people to eat an onion as if it was a juicy apple. It looks very impressive. But I was talking about this to Andy, the director of my stage shows, and he said ‘I bet I can do that without being hypnotized’. And he went to a fridge, took out an onion and took a big bite. And all that is, is another motivating factor, another story you’re telling yourself.

He enjoyed it? He didn’t wince?

No, he was fine. He was trying to prove a point, and that gave him a different motivating story. Even the things that look terribly impressive – people being operated on, for example – it looks amazing, but when you break it down to what layer of skin actually feels pain, actually, once you’re removing organs, it’s a bit uncomfortable but not actually painful.

So in a religious meeting, there might be that whole range – people who are completely swept up, and people who are sort of going along with it, ‘as if’ it was true. As a sort of co-created fantasy.

Yes. You’re there, you’re having a really good time, you’re with a bunch of like-minded people…

And the Holy Spirit is after all a sign of God’s love and favour.

Yes, but I think plenty of people are a bit skepticial about some of that. I find that most intelligent people who also happen to be Christian probably sense that a lot of it is a bit of a scam, stage-craft, crowd manipulation. But it’s sort of ingrained and difficult to object to.

Do you think hypnotism or suggestibility plays a big role in religion in general?

Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of 'Beatle-mania'
Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of ‘Beatle-mania’

It depends. There is a range of human experiences clustered around belief, suggestion, the stories we tell ourselves. Those experiences might include hypnosis in alternative therapy, or placebo responses, or religious experiences, or charismatic revivals, or rock concerts – it’s just a range. The trouble with going ‘is that just hypnosis?’ is that it’s difficult to define what hypnosis is. It’s like defining a magic trick. I think of magic as a short-hand for an experience you have, and you know the magician isn’t actually doing magic but the magician gives you an experience, and you know what to call it, and that makes sense and gives him a role. With hypnosis, there’s a similar thing going on – there’s a certain context, with a guy who’s called a hypnotist, and it’s done with the familiar tropes of hypnotism, and it’s recognized as such. But actually it’s a short-hand for quite different things – if you go to a hypnotist to stop smoking, if you’re trying to get on top of your unconscious processes, that’s quite different to going to on stage and being persuaded to dance like a ballerina. If someone’s hyper-suggestible, they may respond to both, but it’s difficult to lump the experiences together.

Can one really provoke a religious experience in an atheist with an NLP session? I mean, can one brainwash people to do or believe things almost against their will?

Well, I did that in a show. I found a highly suggestible person. It’s not like you can just walk down the road and make that happen. A TV show like that is a specific context, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions of real life.

Tell me about your experiences with faith healing in your latest show, Miracle.

In the second half of the show, I say ‘we’re going to do some faith healing, and I will heal you’. This is a skeptical audience, but I say ‘you’ve just got to go with it, you’re obviously not the right audience for this, you’re not primed for it, and it’s OK to be skeptical and even repulsed by it, but beneath all that, there are some aspects that are useful, so if you go with me on this, it has the power to profoundly change how you feel, emotionally and physically’. And the show progresses in the way that those healings do – I offer out the Holy Spirit, as it were, but I don’t talk about it in religious language initially, it starts off secular. So I throw out this adrenalin experience – adrenalin heals pain. That’s why faith-healing only ever heals functional conditions that respond to pain relief, no one’s arm ever grows back.

Does it work?

The first shock was that it worked at all. Not only does the healing work, but I’ve also ‘slayed’ people, so they’re falling down [when people pass out in charismatic churches it’s called being ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’]. Some shows are better than others, but essentially it’s working as a mechanism even with a skeptical audience. It’s difficult to quantify the effect. But I’ve had a couple of tweets, people jokingly saying ‘well, my condition is back again, so much for that haha’. I tell people, this will stick with some of you, and for others it won’t. But also I’ve had letters from people saying ‘I don’t know what you did, I understand it isn’t faith-healing, but this condition is still gone and I feel amazing’. Someone on stage had a series of strokes when she was very young and had never been able to feel the left-side of her body. And now she could. One guy said he had terrible cirrhosis, his arm was covered with it, and within five minutes, that was gone. One of the stage-crew has a teenage daughter who suffered from depression, and she’s been really helped by it. So sometimes it’s been quite transformative.



You can watch a  clip of Derren ‘curing’ a woman of blindness in the show here.

How does it work?

The way I see it is that William James thing, acting ‘as if’. You give yourself permission to act ‘as if’ a thing isn’t a problem. There’s this story you tell yourself every day – ‘I’ve got a bad back and it’s a thing I live with’. The healing stops that story in its tracks, makes you stop and question it.

Like a religious conversion?

Yeah, a bit. There’s an adrenalin lift as you get on stage, and there are other people around you talking about it. Even if it is only a temporary thing, it’s a glimpse out of that story.

What about people getting ‘slain in the spirit’?

victorian postural sway - CopyIt’s not with quite the vigour and hysteria you see at revival services. Sometimes people are just complying with it. But sometimes their eyes roll back, they start shaking a bit. Sometimes people can’t stop shaking. I always imagine that people are sort of playing along, it’s just a sort of unconscious playing along. But then you see things that people wouldn’t know to play along to do. Sometimes people pass out and are out for the whole of the second half of the show.

Given some of these remarkable results, do you think hypnosis should be used more in the NHS?

I think what we need is a more people-oriented medicine – finding a softer, more caring middle-ground, without endorsing treatments that are claiming to do something they’re not. Let’s say you see your GP for your allocated six minutes, and he says ‘relax and take it easy’, you’ll feel ignored. If you have an hour with an alternative therapist, they’re taking an interest in you, sympathizing with you, there’s a ritual to it. Even if they’re essentially still saying ‘relax and take it easy’, it’s more likely to work. You feel like you’ve had attention paid to you. That’s what’s key: the bed-side manner. I never really recommend people see a hypnotist for smoking. If they are suggestible, it’s amazing, it’s like a magic pill. But for 50% of people it’s a waste of time.

OK, on a different note, how did you get into Stoic philosophy, and how have you found it helpful?

It started with Montaigne, who kept mentioning Stoic writers. So that made me pursue the Stoics, and I discovered a love of the Hellenistic philosophical world, and the Stoics in particular. I realized that it chimed with what I already felt was important and true. For example, when I was at university and afterwards, I had zero ambition. I was doing hypnosis and magic because it was a fun way to spend the day. I had no desire to get on TV or anything. It was a very ‘in the moment’ thing. So that chimed with the Stoic idea of focusing on the present moment and not getting attached to ambition or reputation. Then I gradually discovered new things in Stoicism, and it shaped my character in new ways. That led to me wanting to write a book on these things, it’s such a different voice to mainstream culture. [He’s just finishing a book on happiness, to be published in the next few months].

What’s the best thing you’ve learned about happiness in your research?

I think it’s the clarity of Epictetus’ maxim that you’re only in control of your thoughts and actions, and everything else you can let go. For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief. For example, things that your partner does that annoy you or get under your skin, you realize it’s actually fine, you don’t have to try and change them.

Do fame and wealth really not make you happy?

Well, we know there’s a watershed moment at around £40K where you’re comfortable and money is not a trouble, after that you don’t get much happier with more money. The people who aren’t happy with fame and wealth are the ones who are always chasing the next big thing and who have quite addictive personalities. There’s not a moment when you become successful. And it’s never permanent. Your goal just moves a bit further on. As for the fame thing…everything gets more extreme. The nice things become nicer – you get to travel first class, you can book tables in nice restaurants more easily. But the horrible stuff becomes much worse – you might have stuff about your private life written in newspapers, and you think everyone is thinking about it. You get stalkers, or people who just hate you, or mentally disturbed people who are out to destroy you. So I think it balances out.

You seem to have a very strong work ethic. What motivates you?

I never feel particularly motivated. Motivation is one of those words which people use when they feel they don’t have it and they sense it in others. I’m actually very lazy. I love it when there’s nothing in my diary. I go on tour because I love doing it, and it lets me live like I did in Bristol – I get my days free, so I can sit, read and write in coffee shops, and in the evenings I go out and do a show which makes me feel amazing even if I’ve had a bad day. If I’m sitting and writing, that feels very good to me. And going and doing a show is also hugely enjoyable, and there’s a lot of adrenalin. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.

You can watch the Channel 4 screening of Miracle here.

Here is a link for Derren’s book on happiness.

For an alternative perspective, here’s an interview I did with Nicky Gumbel, head of the evangelical Alpha course, where he gives his take on religious experiences.

Here is another interview about hypnosis, faith and healing, with the medical professor Paul Dieppe

My interview with Derren features in my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which is published by Canongate in May 2017.