Your Feelings Are For Sale
Your workplace is selling your carefully crafted emotions — and the techniques you use to accomplish this craft may have implications for your psychological health.
In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I was assigned Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift. It was one of the most powerful books I encountered as an undergraduate, one of those reading experiences that forever alters your life-view. Using both statistics and case studies, Hochschild detailed the mostly-invisible work women in heterosexual, dual-income families put in after they leave work for the day; the eponymous “second shift.” This second shift comprised activities like housework, childcare, birthday party planning, doctor appointment scheduling, carting pets to the vet, sending sympathy cards to family members, summer camp scheduling, meal planning and preparation… (I could go on if you like). So many hours did women pour into these activities during their “off” time that Hochschild estimated that women tended to put in a full month of extra work every year compared to their husbands. A full month … of 24-hour workdays.
“these women talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food”
- Arlie Russell Hochschild
What I actually want to talk about, though, is the enduring relevance of a less famous book Hochschild wrote six years before The Second Shift that has startling and increasing importance for our lives at both work and home: The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.
Observing a training session for Delta airlines in which flight attendant trainees were told to “smile like you really mean it,” Arlie experienced a spark of insight and scribbled the term “emotional labor” in her notebook.
Today, 33 years later, research on emotional labor is thriving — a Google Scholar search of peer-reviewed publications on the topic yields over 20,000 hits, and that’s without including the British spelling.
Hochschild identifies as emotional labor any practice people employ in the workplace in order to manage their own emotional experience, their own facial or bodily display of emotion, and/or the emotions of their customers or clients in order to fulfill their jobs.
Team leaders attempting to psych up their teams for a new project, newscasters exclaiming fascination during boring interviews, bill collectors putting on a show of anger to induce compliance, and restaurant managers masking irritation are all engaging in emotional labor.
In her afterword to the 20th anniversary edition of the book, Hochschild notes that emotional labor requirements have, if anything, become amplified since the original publication. She discusses increasing reliance on service workers for childcare and eldercare, as well as the birth of a new sector of service jobs in the form of personal planners, schedulers, and experience-managers.
I would add that our growing fixation on topics like positive psychology, mindfulness, and workplace well-being may be inadvertently increasing the burden of emotional labor. Now not only are we expected to hide our anger at our boss and manufacture some sincere gratitude for the customer ordering a burger from us, but we’re also expected to be glowing with an inner joy, tapping into our Happiness Advantage in order to maximize our productivity… and as a result, our workplace’s bottom line.
Thus, it has become more important than ever to do emotional labor well, to practice it in ways that don’t drain our wells of energy and lead us to feel dissociated from our true selves.
How to Do Emotional Labor Right
There is more than one way to accomplish this management of feeling. Hochschild groups them into two types — surface acting, which involves changing your emotional display with no change to your underlying emotions, and deep acting, which involves changing your underlying emotions in order to then portray the changed emotion authentically.
Both types are labor — they take work. But as I review here for Psychology Today, surface acting takes a bigger toll, because it requires a constant monitoring and application of effort. Compared to deep acting, surface acting is also associated with a host of unpleasant outcomes, from burnout to feeling depersonalized to stress headaches and muscle tension to low customer satisfaction — associations supported by a large meta-analysis of decades of research.
So how can we “do” deep acting? Hochschild points to our imaginations as the key to opening the treasure chest of deep acting. One possibility is to use our imaginations tap into our lived memories. For instance, if you have to confront a colleague at work you might intentionally remember a neighbor’s slight in order to work yourself up before approaching them. If you have to portray enthusiasm for a presentation you are feeling lackluster about, you could spend some time simmering in your thoughts about crushing your upcoming half marathon before taking the stage.
Another imaginative possibility is to project yourself deeper into or further away from the people or experiences that are requiring the emotion management. For example, when dealing with an irate customer you might imagine that they have recently suffered a large personal loss and thus respond gently and sympathetically. Or when being criticized by a superior, you might adopt the cool, clinical approach of a stenographer and attempt to create a list of their suggestions for improvement.
These deep acting techniques are effortful, but once initiated, you can portray the emotion you’re now sincerely feeling — and such a process is more natural and thus both less taxing and more effective than surface acting.
The Value of Authenticity
While deep acting seems to be more effective, more humane, and less exhausting than surface acting, I do think we also need to be careful about the ways in which we are willing to sell our emotions in the workplace. In the middle of writing this piece I visited the hairdresser. Rather than engaging in the usual light small talk that frequent such interactions, she abruptly told me she needed to concentrate on my hair and asked if I had my phone to occupy myself. A while into the process, she visibly relaxed a bit and apologized: “I’m sorry, I’m usually really cheerful and chatty. I just… can’t today.” I understood completely and in fact appreciated this moment of honest, authentic connection.
We are intrigued by the unmanaged heart and what it can tell us. — Arlie Russell Hochschild
We can’t escape the need for emotional labor, and it can contribute to a positive workplace culture and greater success of our organizations. But I think as a culture we also need to account for the power of authenticity and the importance being clued in to our own, natural emotional responses. Our emotions orient us to our personal values, drive us closer to our goals, and are the soil in which we grow our most meaningful relationships. Some part of them must remain forever our own.
I’m giving a talk on this topic in a few weeks at WorkHuman 2016 — if you’re there, come on by!
*As an aside, any young women looking to partner up and procreate with men, read the hilarious, devastatingly important advice in the section of this article called Pick the Right Partner: Don’t Fuck the Patriarchy — and this great article on how for men to “lean in” at home, women have to learn to “lean back”.