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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.

Set your intention

In less than a month, I will be sitting in the Amazon jungle, tripping out on ayahuasca. I’m in the midst of my preparation for this nine-day retreat. I have to start the special diet – no pork, no alcohol, no drugs, and no masturbation. There goes my Friday night. 

The Temple of the Way of Light, the centre where I’m doing the retreat, tells participants to set their intention:

Your intention is your mantra, focus and thread to the material realm. It can help you keep focus while engaged with this deep work. Ayahuasca will show you many things, but you can also ask her what to show you. When trying to understand and make meaning of your experience with this medicine, you will find your original intention a helpful reference.

Consider: What do you need? Where are you stuck? What do you want to know about yourself? Are you in a relationship that is causing you to suffer? Are you looking for resolution with something? Do you need clarity? Do you want to believe in something bigger or love yourself more? Whatever your questions, find the ones that are the most deeply present for you and write them down.

This ties in with one of my main findings from The Art of Losing Control – when we’re opening ourselves to ecstatic experiences, the best way to make sure you don’t wipe out is to remember the advice of psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary: pay attention to ‘set and setting’.

‘Setting’ refers to the context in which you’re unselfing: the guides, the other participants, the music, the art, the ritual, the natural environment, the values of the community. Is it a safe space to unself? Does it have good healing support in place if people have difficult experiences? Does it have good values or is it exploitative, controlling and cultish?

Checking the setting is particularly important when you’re taking psychedelics, because they make you so suggestible. You can find dark stories on the internet of psychedelic tourists ending up abused or in sex cults (that’s pretty much what Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ was – check out this great podcast series on it). I wouldn’t do psychedelics again unless I was very sure that the Temple is a safe place with trained therapists and wise healers on hand.

‘Set’, meanwhile, refers to the intention or attitude that you bring to an experience or ritual. Again, this can be a crucial factor in determining if your experience is healing or harmful. You realize, when you’re in deep states of absorption or trance, quite how sensitive your mind, emotions and body are to the attitudes and values you bring.

There was one moment, on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, when I was sitting in absolute agony from the pain in my knees and thighs. Tears were rolling down my face. It was an hour-long meditation, I was about 40 minutes in, and I thought there was no way I could possibly get to 60 minutes without moving my legs. Then, somehow, I shifted my attitude to one of equanimity, and the pain totally transformed and disappeared.

So what’s my intention for the ayahuasca retreat? I’m not expecting a joy-ride. I’ve heard from enough people who’ve taken ayahuasca to expect it to be physically and emotionally hard at times. I’m prepared for moments of fear, pain, nausea, loneliness, disorientation, and so on. I have coping mechanisms for the darker moments: remind myself to trust the process, trust myself, follow the breath, don’t fight it, focus on love. Little maxims like that can help you steer on the big waves. 

But my main intention is to heal and open my heart, and improve my ability to trust myself and other people. This has been my mission throughout the last five years of researching and writing The Art of Losing Control. I wrote in one of the drafts:

Midway through my life, I decided to go beyond Stoicism and search for the ecstatic. As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic, I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go. Stoicism helped me create an ‘inner citadel’, a sense of detachment and personal control, which lowered my social anxiety. But I still felt lonely and disconnected. Safe in my citadel, I yearned for the surrender of love.

As Simon and Garfunkel put it, in a great critique of Stoicism:

I’ve built walls

A fortress, steep and mighty

That none may penetrate

I have no need of friendship

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock

I am an island

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armour

Hiding in my room

Safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I realized Stoicism – itself a very individualist philosophy – was not the raft I needed on the next stage of my journey. I looked, in 2012 and 2013, to Christianity to give me a greater sense of connection and community, and it worked to some extent, but failed in others. I failed to meet either Jesus or my wife, or to find a church I felt at home in. Apart from that, a complete success.

This month, I turn 40, and I’m as single as ever. I know I’m not alone in that, and that many of you are single and happy with it, finding meaning in your friendships, work, creativity and spirituality. I also have much to be grateful for. It may be that I haven’t ‘settled down’, got married and started a family for external, objective reasons – I haven’t met the right person yet, or I’m just a natural loner.

But I wonder if there are internal, subjective barriers, which I can shift. I was almost permanently single in my 20s, when I was recovering from social anxiety and PTSD, and only really started having relationships in my 30s. I was still pretty jumpy then. I think I may not trust that I’m capable of family life, or that I can be with others that much. When you’ve had trauma in your life, you expect things to go wrong – you expect people to die, relationships to collapse. That’s why Stoicism helps – it teaches you to be detached. But I think I need to trust myself and accept myself as an imperfect, vulnerable person who needs other people (a very un-Stoic idea), and to accept the other person too, with all their imperfections. I am far too critical both of myself and others.

Of course, there is something paradoxical in this search of mine over the past few years. In search of connection and ecstasy, I spent four years largely alone, reading and writing. Now, in search of relationships and community, I head off into the jungle, alone. Doh!

It may be that Ayahuasca tells me to learn to love and accept myself, whether I’m single or in a relationship. It may tell me, you are always in relationships, and you are always alone, and you need to accept and appreciate both these states. It may be that neither Jehovah nor Ayahuasca are into being treated as a cosmic dating app.  It may be she has something completely different to tell me.

It may be I am utterly crazy to try psychedelics again, considering my bad trips when I was 18. I wouldn’t take this step unless I felt it was necessary, and that I had done what I could to prepare myself and manage the risks.

I’m very lucky, of course, to have the time and money to invest in my personal growth. Lucky, privileged, self-absorbed, white, bourgeois, cis-man me with my white middle-class problems! I know, it’s kind of bullshit. But I don’t expect this to be particularly fun. And I am focused mainly on trying to help other people, by sharing whatever wisdom I come across. That’s the most important intention one can set. Without the intention outwards, it’s really just a journey up one’s own arse.

If you enjoy this blog, please support it on Patreon. Then you get to request what I write about and research! This week, Patron Alex asked me to describe the bad LSD trips I mentioned above, the sadistic f*ck. OK Alex, here goes. The main thing I struggled with, both times, is I couldn’t think of anything to say! I had an identity, at that time, that was very focused on performance and approval, and suddenly I felt totally blocked, and negated. I then became paranoid that I was somehow letting everyone down by being so silent. I think I had both introverted and extraverted states in my personality, but the extraverted states had been much more affirmed and approved of – a new study found that mothers would prefer their babies be extravert to a host of other, more moral, characteristics.

The second bad trip – the worse time – I was at a clubbing after-party, on LSD, and didn’t know anyone well. I sat in the corner feeling incredibly afraid and self-conscious, so afraid I couldn’t move – it was a complete body-freeze situation. Eventually I left the room, lay down in another room, and imagined I could hear everyone else in the room talking about me. I then didn’t talk about the experience, to anyone, for years. Genius. So really, the LSD exposed a flaw, or crack, in my character – an identity over-weighted towards pleasing and impressing others. I hope, this time, I will be able to deal with that particular monster if it arises, firstly because you don’t really need to chit-chat on an ayahuasca ritual, secondly because I’m now much better at expressing my emotions and asking for help, and thirdly, I’ve learned to care less what others think of me. We’ll see.