We, myself included, use the term “emotional labor” a lot. The phrase is often used when describing unseen and often unappreciated work that is done at home, usually by women and mothers. This includes housework, shopping, the mental load of worrying about and planning for meals, birthdays, and school requirements. Emotional labor is also used to measure someone’s emotional bandwidth or capacity to take on another’s feelings. It can be work to support someone through a trying and emotional time and people shouldn’t feel obligated to take it on, particularly if they are not in a space to do so with boundaries.
No one should make it their job to manage someone’s emotions for free, especially if it comes at a cost to themselves. While the use of “emotional labor” to describe these situations isn’t wrong, it’s not the full story, nor completely reflective of its original meaning. I want to be sure folks know the full meaning of the term so that they can understand why emotional labor is heavy work for marginalized folks.
Arlie Hochschild coined the phrase “emotional labor” in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Hochschild recognized the work that goes into managing our emotions at home and between friends, but she looked at the need to manage emotions while in the public workforce. In an article for The Atlantic Hochschild says, “Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in The Managed Heart, is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it. From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this.”
Taking on a certain set of emotions to get the job done to elevate a person’s position within a company (mission) and to also elevate the company (mission) is emotional labor.
When you are a marginalized person, specifically one who advocates and teaches as part of your work in order to elevate civil rights, the collision of the layered meanings behind emotional labor means two significant things: We are paid to take on the ignorance and sometimes purposeful bigotry of those we speak in front of during trainings and classes and we are expected to provide free guidance to family and friends in the name of love and allyship. We are asked to do a lot of hand holding when our hands are already full. Emotional labor is the work of managing my emotions during stressful times to make other people feel better in order to elevate acceptance for myself and the LGBTQIA+ community I am a part of.
Emotional labor means I need to suppress my natural, true reactions and feelings in order to maintain a professional persona defined by the people I work for in order to get paid. There is also an expectation that I also make sure the people around me are kept comfortable, even when I am uncomfortable. Before I dig in at my trainings I talk about the importance of being uncomfortable in order to learn. I am often uncomfortable just trying to exist in a heteronormative world, yet my first job is to make others okay with being uncomfortable (with me, or the topics, or all of it) which in itself is making them comfortable and providing grace I sometimes wish I didn’t have to extend. I am good at my job, but it takes a lot of control to not want to throw something or be short-fused with a person who tries to tell me how and why I am wrong about the negative impact of single-sex spaces and gendered language.
After each announcement that strips or threatens to take away my rights as a queer, transgender person, I get multiple messages from people asking how they can help. This is on top of the multiple messages I get from folks asking me to help them navigate a situation involving everyday LGBTQIA+ topics. I have a soft spot for parents of queer kids, but it’s often the people who don’t have a direct, personal connection or understanding of how tiring it is to identify as LGBTQIA+ who ask me for free education. I happily mention the trainings I offer and remind them how important it is to advocate for their employer and children’s school to pay for LGBTQIA+ trainings.
I draw boundaries and redirect folks, yet the exhaustion and work comes from the need to stay nice about it. There is an expectation that I, a queer nonbinary person, am so knowledgeable about queer and transgender stuff that of course I would want to educate a person on how to be a better ally. There is also anticipation by the asker that I should answer questions with a smile on my face because I should be happy that they asked and are willing to learn. How dare I become frustrated or impatient with someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know?
I don’t do it as often as I should, but I remind people that Google exists. I explain more than I want, though, because there is an element of “the customer is always right.” They are right to ask the questions, but I — an emotionally exhausted, marginalized person — may not want to be someone’s educator in that moment, or ever. Some of us are more willing than others to share our experiences and expertise, but is often taken advantage of. If I tell people this, then I am the jerk for not helping them help me. If I take the time to guide, teach, and explain something then I am sacrificing paid time for unpaid time. I am also setting a precedent. It’s exhausting.
Even if the intention of the offender is good, marginalized folks don’t own anyone an explanation or a smile. And we have every right to not accept your apology. Recently I had to draw a boundary and tell someone they were asking too much of me; they continued to harass me to the point of becoming the victim and begging for my forgiveness. Victimizing my hurt in order for you to feel better is not how allyship works, and it’s not part of my job description as a human or an advocate. Yet, I didn’t lash out. I could have and maybe I should have. Instead, I changed the subject without accepting the apology.
That is the work we do as marginalized folks. Emotional labor is not just the hidden work of dishes and meal planning in our homes that wears us down; it’s the fight for acceptance and civil rights while being asked to be civil when fighting for them.