The Future of Emotional Work

Where do we go from here?

Photo by 陆初雪 SWEETHEART💘(@luchuxue1997) on Unsplash

My favourite spot in Delhi is a huge park, interspersed with Mughal ruins. You walk through jungley undergrowth, only to come out in front of a spectacular mosque or a tomb that looks like the Taj Mahal’s cuter, less cocky little brother. The other day I was roaming around the gardens feeling very peaceful and relaxed, when a guy came up and started hitting on me. I told him politely that I wasn’t interested and didn’t want to talk, and he got offended, and said:

“It took a lot of courage to come over here. I never do this. You could thank me at least.”

The emotional work required to deal with street harassment is my second least favourite thing about it, just behind being treated like a piece of meat, and ahead of men thinking you owe them your time when you just want to live your life.

You have to regulate your words and emotions to deal with a man that might get offended, or violent, after you reject his advances. You are asked to smile, although if you do, he might take it as a sign of interest and follow you for the next hour. If you don’t, he might start calling you an ugly bitch and threaten to rape you.

Emotional work is exhausting, and it is everywhere. It is fair to say that it is the glue that holds our society together, this emotional work that enables people with different needs, desires and interests to coexist.

Emotional Work is the foundation of our society

Imagine your Great-Aunt gives you a thoughtful but tasteless gift, for instance, a bright orange vase. To not make your Great-Aunt feel bad, and other people around feel awkward, the right thing to do, the thing we all do naturally, is to pretend we love the vase.

This is one example of emotional work — the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a social situation. It means making decisions about how to act and speak so as to avoid feelings being hurt or arguments being started, including, sometimes, suppressing emotions and remaining silent so as to avoid tension.

Except, unlike the ugly yellow vase, the vast majority of emotional work is done by women. In the workplace, it is women who water potted plants and comfort colleagues when someone speaks to them badly (He doesn’t mean that — you know how he is.) On the streets, women smile at lewd comments to avoid the person getting angry, manage their body and their expressions to avoid getting cat-called, hold in anger when strangers comment on their body. In their way of speaking, women slip “sorries” and “I thinks” to soften what they are saying and not question the male ego. Feminist activists, too, are often forced to control their anger and words so as not to ruffle any feathers and inconvenience the oppressor by describing how they are being oppressive. At home, women generally initiate relationship talks and provide comfort and encouragement to their male partners far more than the other way around — a vital form of support that men then use to revigorate and better invest in the outside world. Women don’t benefit from the same emotional support system.

In one of my former relationships, I was dating a guy suffering from depression, who needed a lot of emotional support. He was often anxious or sad. I spent a lot of time comforting him and boosting his mood. He wasn’t very at ease in social situations, so when we were with others, I had to make sure everything went well, worry about his comfort, and sometimes make excuses for him when he might pass off as rude. It got to a point where I felt like I was actually living his emotions so he didn’t have to: if someone did something nice for him, I would be the one thanking them profusely, when someone was mean to him, I was the one getting angry. I was the sub-contractor of his emotions, and it was a thankless and tiring job.

The thing is, emotional work is positive, in itself. It is about being compassionate and empathic, analysing a situation and seeing what is the best course of action to make sure everything goes well and people get along. The problem is how very gendered it is, making it, like housework and care work, a form of invisibilised, undervalued and unpaid labour that women do on top of their other duties.

A fair division of emotional labour

In the same way that part of the feminist movement called for domestic labour to be remunerated, others speak up about measuring and monetising emotional work. Personally, I don’t think this is the right way to go. Emotional work has value, more value than can be translated into money. Our humanity and empathy should not be likened to a product. Plus, it would not lead to emotional work being more fairly divided between men and women. Unless we change our culture regarding which character traits we value the most, and break down gender stereotypes over who should be looking after others, women will be the ones who end up doing emotional labour.

Long term, we need to strive for everyone to take on their share of emotional work. This would require revalorising traits seen as “feminine”: gentleness, softness, altruistic. This emotional work should remain free. If we do away with bullshit jobs and work as little as we could given the technological advance of our society, we would all have time to do both paid labour and unpaid labour.

Emotional work is so fundamental to our well-being as a society that getting rid of it is inconceivable. To show how important it is, women should go on strike. Just stop providing that emotional work. And see how quick invisible labour, in its absence, becomes visible.

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