The Unwritten Handbook for Girls and Women: Uncompensated Emotional Labor
“Mostly, what the Handbook doesn’t tell you, is that it’s bullshit”
I pull into a parking space at my apartment building on a Thursday evening after a long, full day of teaching. I have taught for six hours and tactfully defused a full-on crisis in which one of my students chose to stand on a desk in protest at the horrifying suggestion that he should do some schoolwork (yikes!) I have navigated a two hour IEP meeting.
But before my feet have hit the pavement, my sigh of relief turns into a groan. Bill is out today. Even as I exit the car I hear the insistent squeak squeak squeak of his porch swing. I step out into the scorching hot St. Louis summer. I drag my teacher bag, along with five or six loaded grocery bags out of the back seat. As I stand up, I drop my stainless steel water bottle and it rolls under the car. By now my face is bright red. A bead of sweat rolls between my shoulder blades. I retrieve the bottle and reluctantly prepare to run the gauntlet.
You see dear reader; my neighbor Bill has perfected a conversational technique that is the verbal equivalent of the infinity pool. A flow of seamless stories and questions designed to keep the listener captive yet paddling like mad below the surface in hopes of a way out. Yes, he knows perfectly well that I’m carrying a weight equivalent to several small bowling balls, but there’s no mercy for the listener in Bill’s world. Given the chance, he would keep me as his personal chat hostage until I faint with heat exhaustion. Then keep talking after I collapse.
I have another neighbor, Jay (who is married and lives with his wife) a few apartments down. Our kids go to school together. They adore each other and play happily in the complex with the other kids. In Jay’s mind, this makes me and him besties. I’ve been invited to sample some delicious meals about six notches beyond my personal spice tolerance (Jay was a chef in his former life). We’ve broken bread (okay it was rice) and shared wine. I’ve looked at their family photos; watched more than my share of his favorite Indian music videos, been introduced to his spiritual guru and of course attended all the birthday parties. I’ve also ignored countless texts not asking but demanding my presence at their home. He even made me host a dinner party of his once. It’s a long story involving a grease fire and my perennial inability to say “Hell no!”
As a single woman living without a partner, I find myself constantly balancing conflicting values and needs; a desire to be friendly and sociable as a part of the larger community and my wish for emotional space and privacy.
When I first moved into my apartment, I found it terribly strange that many of the people living here never gave me a single greeting. I came from a country where a quick smile and friendly “hello” was the cultural norm.
There are folk who have lived here four or five years however, who have never once raised their heads to acknowledge my existence. Then there are people like Bill and Jay, who seem to believe that living in the same apartment building is as emotionally binding as a kind of instantaneous, intimate and entirely one-way best-friendship.
We live in a world that’s increasingly private, even bordering at times on outright social isolation. We’re a busy, mobile society. We have the “luxury” of selecting our friends and choosing those with whom we spend physical, face-to-face time. Some of us (I admit to being one of them) feel so “time-starved” that even small, unplanned social interactions can begin to feel like heavy intrusions.
As a woman, I feel the weight of this even more keenly. I believe if I were male, Bill would be content to give me a pleasant greeting and allow me to go about my business. Jay would not assume that I’m constantly available to entertain him at his whim. He would probably understand I’m leading my own independent life and stop texting “Come over when free”, while I’m slap-bang in the middle of the second season of “TransParent” or some other beloved Original Series.
I feel burdened as though I’m responsible for the comfort of those around me. I feel guilt. Bill for example is blind. I know he’s lonely and needs someone to talk to. Jay is an immigrant whose family has been in the U.S. about two years. I feel empathy. I remember how I used to complain when I first came to St. Louis how difficult it was to make friends. People seemed so closed off, so involved in their own worlds and unwilling to open their lives to new people. Now I’ve become one of them.
I describe these interactions as “one way” because for the most part they’re not reciprocal. It’s not about an exchange between equals. It’s about me being a witnessing presence to these men, and a compliant, encouraging listener. I am the passive participant who builds knowledge and understanding of the active speaker. I may get to squeeze in a word or two, but the truth is even if I had the opportunity, I’m not keen to share my personal stories or history. It’s an intimacy I haven’t even agreed to. In fact it’s uncompensated emotional labor.
Many of us are single either by choice or circumstance. Time and time again I find myself struggling against all my social training; the all too familiar ‘Unwritten Handbook for Girls and Women’. The hidden social constructs that tell us to smile more, to be nice, kind, empathetic and meek — to care for and make others feel comfortable.
How much we’re willing to do can fluctuate. I have days when I have more energy, when I feel outgoing enough to shoot the shit with Bill for a few minutes, or have a cup of chai with Jay and his wife.
On the days that I cannot, I have to remind myself I do not need to pay the price for my female existence in terms of my time and energy every single day. I do not have to do the heavy emotional work of providing companionship to every man who sees that I’m by myself and therefore in his mind unclaimed, unprotected and basically “fair game”.
The problem with the Unwritten Handbook, is that there are a whole ‘nother set of secrets hidden underneath the rules. We’re taught that being “nice” will inoculate us against male aggression and keep us physically safe. This is true to an extent. Women who refuse to ‘play along’ quickly find themselves recipients of male hostility; angry remarks on a continuum from “You’re so much prettier when you smile.” to “Suit yourself, you frigid bitch.” Sometimes it’s easier just to give that smile.
Mostly what the Handbook doesn’t tell you is that it’s bullshit. Being “nice” is all too often simply taken as a sign of weakness. It may protect a woman from predatory behavior in the short term. But in some cases, being “nice” is like hanging a “Welcome” sign for a fox on a hen-house. If you can be held chat-hostage for twenty minutes, the speaker realizes that perhaps you could be exploited just a little further. It didn’t take Bill long into our acquaintance to start saying things like, “I hear you taking a lot bubble baths up there” and giggling like a lewd, suggestive elf.
Hell I want to be neighborly, but a nice “hello” and a few pleasantries are and should be sufficient to grease the social wheels. I should not have to paddle furiously beneath the surface to prove myself worthy of physical safety. Neither should I have to guard myself so closely that I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the people around me in order to protect my emotional space and privacy.
I know I’m not only one struggling with this. I imagine it as a delicate high-wire act that most women perform every day, usually while holding groceries 0that weigh the equivalent of several small bowling balls.
Most of us don’t want kudos or medals or even an extra-nice card on Mother’s day. We just want to get back to our apartments and put down the emotional baggage in some semblance of peace.