This article delves into the world of emotions, feelings and what happens to individuals when they have to control them in professional spaces. In the United States, one-third of the jobs involve emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983). Such term was coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart (1983/2012) and refers to the process of regulating or managing emotions as part of one’s professional role. At the individual level, the concept is particularly useful for understanding the psychological consequences of having to display conflicting emotions in the workplace. From a broader perspective, an emphasis on emotional labour offers interesting insights into how the overwhelming growth of the service industry contributes to maintaining gender, race, and class inequalities. First, the article will give a brief overview of the concept of emotional labour before exploring what it entails for service industry workers. Then, it will examine how emotional labour is embedded into broader dynamics that maintain and reproduce gender, race, and class inequalities.
What is Emotional Labour?
“Smile like you really mean it” (Hochschild, 2012, p. ix). This sentence, articulated by a flight attendant counsellor, illustrates the work that most employees — especially in the service industry — are required to perform as part of their job. As the economy moved from manufacturing to a primarily service-based industry (e.g., restaurant work, personal services), the majority of workers no longer produce goods but perform interactive service work with customers or clients. Workers who engage in face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction with the public are expected to display specific sets of emotions and suppress others to induce a particular feeling and response among those who receive the service (Hochschild, 1983). Such norms about appropriate emotional expression are called “display rules“, and indicate standards of behaviour informing not only which emotions are appropriate and expected in a particular situation, but also how those emotions should be conveyed or publicly expressed (Ekman, 1973). To regulate their emotions, workers engage in “surface acting“ or “deep acting“ (Hochschild, 1983). Surface acting implies that workers display the required emotions without feeling them: they only deceive others about how they feel. Deep acting, on the other hand, means that workers attempt to modify their internal feelings to align with the required display rules.
With the rise of the service industry and consumer culture — or the increased mediation of culture and resources through markets — emotional labour has become a source of competitive advantage (Sturdy, 1998). For instance, in the restaurant service industry, emotional labour is a means of positively influencing customer satisfaction and loyalty while enhancing the organisational image. In positions where tipping is expected, emotional labour can also directly increase wages and profits (Chu & Murrmann, 2006). Emotional labour is, therefore, organisationally ascribed and controlled for instrumental ends (Bolton & Boyd, 2003). In other words, feelings have become commodities.
The Consequences of Emotional Labour
As emotions become the subject of organisational control, workers may experience alienation, disengagement, and detachment from themselves and their feelings. Drawing from the concept of alienation, as initially developed by Marx, as well as the concept of cognitive dissonance, Hochschild suggests that the performance of emotional labour may result in “emotive dissonance” (1983, p. 90). Workers who are expected to display emotions regardless of whether they are feeling them may develop a sense of self-estrangement or distress. Because emotions are deeply related to the self, those who regularly display emotions that conflict with their own feelings are more likely than others to experience identity-related issues that impact their psychological well-being (Hochschild, 1983). In particular, surface acting may result in emotional exhaustion (Dijk & Brown, 2006), feelings of depersonalisation, and a lower sense of personal accomplishment at work (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002). Emotional dissonance is also associated with lower job satisfaction (Morris & Feldmass, 1997) and increased job stress (Pugliesi, 1999).
In contrast, Wharton (2009) suggests that workers who engage in deep acting or who manage to genuinely experience the emotions they are required to display in their job are more likely to mitigate the negative consequences of emotional labour. Rather than trying to manipulate their emotions through exhortation, by inducing or preventing them, workers “fool“ themselves: they manipulate their emotions to produce an authentic response (Hochschild, 1983). The greater the worker’s emotions aligned to the emotional display rules, the less emotive dissonance or feeling of inauthenticity. In turn, deep acting has a positive effect on the worker’s well-being, such as an increased sense of personal accomplishment (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002). Other research highlights more positive aspects of emotional labour. For example, Mears & Finlay (2005) argue that emotional labour is a crucial aspect of modelling: it helps models cope with the unpleasant aspects of their job, as it is a self-protection mechanism to resist the humiliation and harassment they frequently experience. Models perform emotional labour by “attempting to charm agents, clients, and photographers and by defining their work as acting“ (Mears & Finaly, 2005, p. 319). In doing so, they increase their chances of being hired and find dignity in a job that mainly consists of the passive display of physical beauty.
An Intersectional Perspective on Emotional Labour
Hochschild (1983) argues that jobs requiring emotional labour are more likely to be performed by women than by men. The gendered aspect of emotional labour can be explained by the deep-rooted stereotype about the sexual division of labour, whereby men have historically been associated with the world of production while women have been assigned to caring and nurturance in the private sphere of the home (Taylor & Tyler, 2000; Sturdy, 2002). The sexual division of labour continues to be influenced by the long-standing opposition between personal feelings and economic production, the rational and the emotional, and the public and the private. This conception of society is predicated on the belief that women have a natural inclination to deliver services and care for others (Taylor & Tyler, 2000). Care work, for instance, is socially devaluated and badly rewarded compared to its skills demands because of its association with women (England, Budig, & Folbre, 2002).
Wingfield (2021) further brings a critical race theory perspective into the conversation about the gendered nature of emotional labour. The author argues that workers of colour have to perform additional emotional work to navigate a society where whiteness is the norm (2021). Race and gender intersect in the creation of stereotypes that bring additional difficulties for workers of colour to meet the emotional demands of their jobs. Workers of colour perform emotional labour not only in response to the requirement of organisational structures but also due to racial dynamics in which institutions are embedded (Wingfield, 2021). Emotional labour for people of colour includes the performance of pleasantness and the concealment of anger and irritation, especially if these emotions arise in response to racist behaviour. For example, Black nurses continuously engage in emotional labour to conceal feelings of anger and frustration that result from their patients’ and colleagues’ doubts about their qualifications and skills (Cottingham, Johson & Erickson, 2018). Race-related emotional experiences of aggression, micro-aggression, and subsequent emotional labour, directly affect nurses’ emotional capital and negatively impact their individual health, well-being, and job performance (Cottingham, Johson & Erickson, 2018).
Similarly, Black professors are frequently perceived as less qualified and intelligent than their White counterparts in student comments and evaluations (Cottingham, Johson & Erickson, 2018). These professors perform additional emotional work to create a level of detachment from student assessments and avoid feelings of disappointment and frustration. The intersection of race and gender is particularly visible for Black women professors. White students tend to describe these professors as mean or cold if they do not fit the nurturing and self-sacrificing image associated with Black femininity (Cottingham, Johson & Erickson, 2018). Finally, different standards of emotional performance are applied to workers of colour. For example, it is generally accepted, if not encouraged, for men attorneys to show strong emotions of belligerence and anger. However, anger is racialised in ways that such emotional expression would reinforce the broader stereotype of Blacks as potentially violent, thus placing them in a risky situation (Wingfield, 2021). Living in the continuous threat of racism and negative stereotype, Black workers respond to racial biases by following different feeling rules than their White colleagues, concealing anger and frustration, and displaying a “happy face“ through emotional management.
The concept of emotional labour provides much-needed information on how workers navigate and subjectively experience emotions in their workplace, allowing us to gain insight into the socio-psychological processes that shape workers’ well-being and interactions in the service industry. Meanwhile, emotional labour is embedded in broader institutional, organisational, and structural processes that maintain and reproduce systemic inequalities. While many studies have explored the gendered aspect of emotional labour, less work has been done on understanding how gender, along with race and class processes, is central to the social construction of emotional labour. With an increasing number of workers of colour in the service industry, especially in low-wage service work, it is essential to consider how the intersection of race, class, and gender informs the experience of emotional labour in service jobs.
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