Emotional Labor, Or: Women Are Better At Things Like That

The first time I had an issue with emotional labor, and how much of it women are expected to take on, I didn’t have a word for it.

I was eating lunch with my granddad one day this past summer and he mentioned he had asked his wife to do some task, maybe make travel arrangements, I don’t even remember what, but something that required being able to fake a good mood. And he said, “No offense, but women are just better at things like that.” There was no doubt in my mind that she would be better at the task than he would, but that he classified it as a gender difference rather than a difference in personality on the individual level — that’s what stuck with me.

And why do women dominate the fields of customer service, child care, and nursing — in short, anything that requires having a smile on most of the time? It would appear women are “better at things like that” based purely off stereotype. Yet I felt a burning in my belly when he said it and it wasn’t until, some months later, I learned why when I discovered the term emotional labor.

For the uninitiated, emotional labor is categorized as the work that goes into maintaining a pleasant, pleasing demeanor at all times and completing undesirable tasks without ruffling any feathers. This includes monitoring your volume and tone of voice, sitting up straight, smiling, pretending you don’t want to punch the person standing in front of you in the face, etc. Stuff that was taught at finishing schools a century ago. Realistically, stuff that every human is certainly capable of and that can be beneficial in most social arenas, but that only women are expected to regularly carry that over into the workplace.

Emotional labor is a burden. When I’ve worked in retail or customer service, it’s not folding clothes or entering data that’s difficult. It’s the dealing with other humans. Women have a reputation for being better at placating people because society has taught us it’s our job to make lives easier for everyone around us, all the time. And even as recently as the 1950s, that was still true. Women hardly worked. They made meals, took care of the children, did laundry. We were treated as comfort objects when our dreams and passions have always been as vibrant’s as men’s, our intellects always as sharp, our talents always as varied and impressive. Still we must attempt every day to erase the vestiges of the false narrative from our society. And it will never happen until men learn how to act happy when they’re not, or until women are finally no longer expected to do the same.

Think of the backlash against what’s popularly referred to as “Resting Bitch Face” — the tendency for a woman’s face to rest in a neutral position instead of an appeasing one. On men, it’s unremarkable. Think of the times you’ve seen a woman expected to smooth over a disagreement she has no part in simply because she’s a woman. The smiling faces of all the sales clerks at the mall. Of waitresses who feel like they have to fake flirt to make sure they get a tip. Of how your mom was the one who said no, and your dad was the one who said yes. And how it isn’t fair to any female anywhere.