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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.

Review: The Wellness Syndrome

How are you feeling? How well are you? Is your weight where you want it to be? Smoking too much? How happy are you on a scale of one to ten? Are you optimising your personal brand? How fast was your last five kilometre run? Would you like to share that via social media? Would you like a life-coach to help you overcome these challenges on a way to a better, happier, more awesome you?

If such questions fill you with dread, don’t worry, you’re not alone. We have become a culture of Bridget Joneses, anxiously pursuing an ever-retreating ideal of wellness. The ruling ideology of our time, argue Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer, is ‘the wellness syndrome’, which makes the urge to self-improvement a moral imperative, and our own bodies the battleground.

Cederstrom and Spicer thinks the wellness syndrome is a mistake and a trap, for three reasons. First, it is based on a foolish myth of the individual as ‘neoliberal agent’, able to exert perfect control of their body, their emotions and their life. If you’re poor or fat or unhappy, it’s your fault, and you need some life-coaching or military fitness boot-camp to get into shape. This is a convenient shifting of personal responsibility from the state onto us hapless Bridget Joneses.

Secondly, the constant search for personal authenticity and fulfillment is deeply narcissistic. Aristotle and Rousseau’s eudaimonic society was about fulfillment through civic activity. Rousseau would be ‘apalled’ by our culture’s ‘blind celebration of individual narcissism’ (really? Have you read his Confessions? But let’s press on.)

Thirdly, the dream of autonomy and authenticity we’re chasing is a mirage – in fact, the wellness syndrome is deeply conformist, and the ultimate aim of all this self-improvement is simply to make us more productive and sellable in the capitalist marketplace. We think we’re becoming more ourselves, when in fact we’re becoming more alienated.

The way to rebel against the wellness syndrome, the authors argue, is to embrace illness and impotence. Live like Sartre’s students, who existed on a diet of ‘cigarettes, coffee and hard liquor’. Take sick days. Over-eat. Go ‘barebacking’ – a culture in which ‘bug-chasers’ (people who want to get HIV) have unprotected sex with ‘gift-givers’ (people who have the illness).

Cederstrom and Spicer are professors of organizational theory and organizational behaviour, respectively. However, this book is basically a rant, like an extended Spectator column by Rod Liddle, moving effortlessly from anecdote to rumour, without ever troubling itself with scientific evidence.

We are told the anecdote of the two life-coaches who killed themselves in a suicide pact. Why did they kill themselves? We’re not informed, but it seems damning, and we move on. We’re told David Cameron is a fan of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Really? Well, a Guardian columnist said so, let’s move on. We’re told the Wellness Syndrome leads to an obsession with dieting and personal fitness. Then why, if this is the ruling ideology of our time, are 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK overweight or obese? And why is the sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame also an example of the Wellness Syndrome? We’re never told – move on to the next anecdote.

Epictetus, lifecoach to the Roman aristocracy

The core claim of the book – that we’re being sold a toxic idea of neoliberal personal autonomy – deserves more careful examination, because it has some validity. The roots of this model of personal autonomy lie not in neoliberalism, in fact, but in Stoicism, and particularly in Epictetus, who was a sort of life-coach for Roman aristocrats, urging them to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs in order to heal their emotions and improve their selves. ‘It’s not events which cause humans suffering, but our opinion about events’, he insisted. And our opinions are always in our control. ‘The robber of your free will does not exist’. This Stoic libertarian ethos fed into Enlightenment liberalism, into Victorian self-help, and into the modern wellbeing movement and the idea – at the heart of cognitive therapy and Positive Psychology – that our emotions are our choices, and that ‘there is nothing more tractable than the self’, as Epictetus put it.

Of course, Epictetus’ philosophy can be taken too far. The Stoics focused entirely on the individual, and ignored society. They thought a wise individual could be free and happy even in the midst of a toxic and unequal society (Epictetus himself was a slave). Most of us are not such citadels of serenity. That’s why there’s a strong correlation between poverty and depression. Shit gets us down. So it’s unfair and unwise to make people’s emotional or behavioural problems entirely their responsibility – our personal agency is weak, at best. Most of us are to some extent the creatures – Epictetus would say the slave – of our circumstances.

And yet Epictetus was not entirely wrong. Overcoming problems like depression, or alcoholism, or obesity, or injustice, or even poverty does involve personal agency. Humans do have a capacity not just to be determined by our circumstances, but to determine our own attitude to them, and through that self-determination we can get the inner strength to change our external circumstances. We don’t always have to resort to pill-popping to feel better (oddly, despite its cover, the book doesn’t ever look at our growing dependence on mood-altering pills, perhaps because that doesn’t fit with their rant against ‘the myth of neoliberal agency’).

Our powers of self-determination don’t necessarily have to be in the service of neoliberal capitalist conformity. Look at Gandhi, practicing swaraj or ‘self-governance’ in his personal life order to prove to the British Empire that Indians are not irresponsible children. Look at Nelson Mandela, reading the Stoic poem Invictus to himself while practicing ascetic self-government in Robben Island prison, to prove that black South Africans can govern themselves with dignity.

Of course, the strength or weakness of our personal agency, the extent to which it is tied up with determining factors like our environment or genes, is a very difficult question. I recently saw the documentary Amy, and was moved by the story of Amy Winehouse’s rapid self-destruction. Whose fault was it? Whose responsibility? Was it the father, for not being there when Amy was growing up, and then trying to cash in when she was famous? Was it her boyfriend, latching on and encouraging her drug dependence? Was it our celebrity-obsessed media and culture? Yes, perhaps, all of these things. But it was also Amy’s doing.

But can you say an addict ‘chooses’ to destroy themselves? To what extent does a person with mental illness really make choices? To some extent. As that famous sex-addict, St Augustine, explored in his Confessions, we make choices, which then harden into the chains of habit and addiction. Those chains are very difficult to break. It’s even harder today, when the internet remembers our habits and reflects them back to us. But change is possible. And personal choice is an important part of that liberation.

Our degree of personal agency, then, our capacity to determine our course in life, is a very complicated area, but it is one that psychology has spent decades trying to explore, through cognitive behavioural therapy, social psychology, behavioural economics, self-determination theory, and the psychology of self-control. And psychologists have begun to build up evidence that personal autonomy is limited but nonetheless real – Epictetus was, to some extent, right.

Yet Cederstrom and Spicer don’t cite a single piece of scientific evidence in their rant against personal autonomy. The closest we get is an appeal to authority: ‘We know from Freud’, ‘we know from psychoanalysis’. Do we? At one point they write: ‘As pointed out in a Huffington Post article, mindfulness advocates often make unsubstantiated claims.’ Oh the irony.

Because the authors set out to write a polemic, they make broad and usually damning generalizations, and ignore the good aspects of the phenomena they dismiss. For example, one of their favourite targets is the self-tracking movement, in which people use self-tracking devices to measure various aspects of their life, to improve them. This, the authors say, is just neoliberal alienation. Well, it can be, but not always. Self-tracking can be a way for people to empower themselves and become experts in their own health, rather than relying on the authority of external experts. One well-known self-tracking app is MoodScope, which Jon Cousins invented to help himself track his depressive episodes to see what helped him get better. He then made it freely available to other people. This seems to me worth applauding.

Finally, I’m not convinced that the moral ideology of wellness and health is a new thing. Health has always been ideological. Look at Plato’s Republic, with its diagnosis of the sick society and the healthy society. Look at the Middle Ages, with its public performances of the Seven Deadly Sins, including Gluttony. Every ideology involves some positive model of human flourishing, including Neoliberalism and Marxism. If the best model of flourishing you can offer is sick days and barebacking, why should we follow you?