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This Week's Distraction

This very lengthy MetaFilter thread about emotional labor, and how strongly it's gender-coded, is fascinating me to the point of distraction. I've emailed it to a few colleagues, can't shut up about it to Andy, and every time I refresh the thread, there's a whole batch of new comments that I've been reading all week, ten minutes or so at a time. The concept is not new to me, nor is the feminist angle on it, but there's something about the sheer weight of anecdote and just-below-the-surface rage in the comments that's turning that knowledge from something intellectual into something visceral. I've also mostly considered emotional labor as labor, as an element of workplace labor, and never really thought about its role in personal relationships. It's prompted some introspection, a little bit of critical distance, some examining of my own behavior, upbringing and family relationships, and a lot of uncertainty. Because, yet again, I find that the 'Men do this, women do this' generalization doesn't hold for me, and a lot of the "Men are treated like this, women are treated like this" doesn't either.

A big part of the frustration that comes across from commenters is about what they feel obligated to do, about the consequences that come when, as is so often suggested, a person Nopes out of some bit of work they don't enjoy, or receive reciprocation for, and how those consequences are often enforced by the very people who dismiss the value of the labor, or don't even recognize it as labor in the first place. There are so many sad variations on: "Why do you martyr yourself planning get-togethers with my family, who you don't enjoy spending time with?" "Good point, I'm going to stop doing that." "Gosh, I never see my family anymore and that makes me sad! Whatever shall I do!" "HEADDESK." Each of my parents Noped out of certain family obligations (my dad very explicitly and deliberately, my mom more as a function of distance) and having that example, plus being an only child, probably taught me that relationships can be an optional thing, and helped me figure out what sort of relationships were valuable enough for me to have in my life. I have an independent streak that is just shy of pathological, but I also know a lot of wonderful people whose presence in my life makes it better than a solitary life would be. The work of maintaining those relationships is something that I think is valuable, even as I recognize that I don't reliably do the work.

I think this concept is also fueling comments like "Romantic relationships take work!" that have always felt sort of weird to me. I don't feel that way about my relationship. I feel like my partner is basically my favorite person in the world, and spending time with him makes me happy on a consistent basis, and I like the idea that I do the same for him. There isn't a lot of obligation there, and whenever I do something that, all else being equal, I'd rather Nope out of, I do it for him because I want to do things for my favorite person in the world. And he does stuff for me, including letting me Nope out of things without getting upset. He does a lot of emotional labor, in fact, including a lot of family relationship maintenance that, were I in his shoes, I might have Noped out of long ago. He also does more than his share of housework, lets me unload about the emotional labor I do at work*, and notices and acknowledges the stuff I do for him. He noticed a while back that the hosts of this podcast I listen to, which is in no way the sort of podcast he'd be into, were doing a live appearance in Cambridge, and gave me a heads up about it. Then he got me tickets to the appearance for my birthday. Then he listened to an episode of the podcast, even, and that right there was effort, and the more I think about it, the happier it makes me.

So maybe the biggest takeaway me has not been some kind of Problem That Has No Name realization (though I did start to understand why feminist consciousness-raising groups became a Thing while scrolling through all that pain) but more a growing understanding that I am fully capable of doing more than I am on this front, especially in my personal life, and that I am kind of excited about it. Because although I am kind of a slacker with this stuff, I also know that I'm pretty good at it, and I do find it satisfying, probably because I've unconsciously engineered my life to make it an entirely voluntary thing, and I only volunteer for the things that are worth it. Andy is totally worth it! So he shouldn't have to always be the one to clean the bathroom, even though I would probably never clean the bathroom if I lived all alone and have only a basic awareness of when it 'needs' to be cleaned. And the language of emotional labor, thinking about cleaning the bathroom as Doing Something To Make Someone Else's Life Nicer, makes me more interested in cleaning the bathroom than I ever have been in my life. So that's pretty cool, and I hope I can change some on that front.

But then there's this, deep down in the days-later portion of the whole thing, which finally, really, truly blew my mind: "It's kind of weird to think that it actually takes a boatload of effort to be fully human." And thinking about it that way is sort of...liberating. Being a person, a fully-alive person who exists in the world and is a part of the lives of other people, is not a thing that magically happens, and even the most solitary and antisocial and Noped out among us actually is doing some of that kind of work all the time. It can be the most rewarding sort of work - the kind of work that makes you feel good for having done it, that is acknowledged and compensated (usually in reciprocated labor) - but it requires actual real effort, and that is a hell of a useful thing to point to when you can't quite figure out why a particular relationship is making you happy or not, or what it is about that dude at the office that rubs you the wrong way, or why it's so satisfying to see the surprise on the face of the person at the sandwich place when you make eye contact and take a second to say "Hi, how are you?" before giving your order. It's not far off from a truism that, when I'm at my best, I do a good job of always keeping in mind: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Everybody is actually working hard. Life's hard. But some of us work harder than others. And many of us work too much. The least we could do is recognize and acknowledge it, and the wonderful thing about this whole outpouring is that it created, almost from scratch, a vocabulary for doing it.

* My mom once told me that she never encouraged me to follow her example and pursue a career in nursing because, basically, I'm just not nice or caring enough to be good at that. And she's not wrong. But I did end up in a job that requires a lot of emotional labor, but it's all kind of coded as politics, and formalized as my role, and I get recognized and compensated for it. Hell, senior management jobs are almost entirely emotional labor, which may be why so many people make shitty managers and why it's not a good idea to assume that being good at a task means you'd be good at managing people who do that task. But there's a reason why I make jokes like "I don't give it away for free" when I find myself in a position to "manage" a "project" in my non-work life.
Another relevant quote from the MeFi thread: "The people in your outfit, especially the women, who make the plans, take care of the details, and know the people on their team well enough to resolve conflicts and keep everything running smoothly aren't doing "women's work" or "emotional labor." They're the leaders. What they're doing is called leadership. Promote them appropriately, back them up assiduously, and give them assistants as necessary." My workplace actually does this! I went through a whole Leadership training program that was six entire days of learning how to be empathetic and considerate and mindful of the fact that everybody you work with is a person and yeah, it's worth taking extra effort and time to make people feel good in addition to Getting Things Done! It was pretty great!


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 27th, 2015 12:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this. Great food for thought.
Jul. 28th, 2015 04:47 pm (UTC)
Ditto. :-)
Jul. 27th, 2015 08:22 pm (UTC)
So, I'm really worried I might be on the verge of saying stupid things, because I know I'm a little or a lot dense about some of this. I try to be a good feminist, for reals, but I can have a tin ear about some things, and the way I might be expecting free emotional labor.

Reading the original article... to me it feels like it's conflating two things. One is the "placating men and navigating patriarchal expectations". I'm probably with the group that doesn't have an intuition for the cost and long term drain of that for women.

The other I thought I could recognize more, and that's "being 'wise' counsel to friends", and why other "friendly" favors might be free at least the potential for renumeration is recognized, unlike with those.

I can think of 3 reasons for that, or way payment is tacitly made:
1. the old "fandom" concept of egoboo
2. relatedly, the idea that the person doing the advising is reinforcing her or his authority, and that might temper future relations
3. the idea that everyone is "rich" enough in the resource being spent (time and emotional energy and thoughfulness in this case) that we can assume long term balance and that will "all come out in the wash", or if it's blatantly asymmetrical, it can be addressed. Though that doesn't explain why putting cash to it seems weird tho.

I dunno.

I like the article as explaining where middle management often seems to have a lot of female representation even as I'm bummed it doesnt stretch to the upper echelons of corporate stuff very often

The other thing I was wondering if it resonated for you (like if it as an" only child" thing, maybe?) I tend to be what my friend described as a "crux-ian", I want to pour resources and attention into what seems important to me, and absolutely economize on the rest. And unless I check myself, that's how I expect partners to be too. Don't want to house clean? Great, me either, so as long as we're ok with the level of mess, we're good, right? (Later my partner got into us hiring weekly or semiweekly cleaners , a luxury I've kept up to this day). Or worse: "want to buy a house? great! I don't care where we live, really, but understand I'll get some benefit from it so while I'll support you with money and some time it's mostly you and your mom's project"

er, yeah, so that kind of "do what you want! I support you" stuff wasn't really good for my long term relationships. I guess stuff like this article provides a bit more of a framework for understanding why not, and being more aware of the costs I was less willing to pay, or needed pointed out to me that I had to pay them.

(the other thing is I grew up with hyper-symmetrical gender role models, so my expectations for who 'should' do what aren't as pointed as some dudes)
Jul. 27th, 2015 11:02 pm (UTC)
that "only child" thing you said was spot on - for me as an only child.

Edited at 2015-07-27 11:02 pm (UTC)
Jul. 28th, 2015 03:31 am (UTC)
The article I didn't like so much as the thread, because I just haven't had a lot of the experiences the author writes about. But I think in a lot of places, in the article and the thread, the problem isn't the doing of emotional labor, it's doing unrecognized emotional labor that is not reciprocated in some way.

Example: My coworker was bitching to me about some stuff her husband doesn't pull his weight on which was especially difficult for her lately. He's kinda shitty on that front, and there was a lot of work for the family in that area lately. But he does all of her clothes shopping for her, and does a very good job, and that's something she really hates doing. It's asymmetrical, but reciprocal, and one of the things that thread did for me was help me recognize that I undervalue some of the emotional labor other people do, and I'm happy to have gotten the wake-up call.

I TOTALLY do the 'crux-ian' thing, and...I dunno, I think it's not inherently a bad way to be, but does require a partner who is similarly wired, and a level of honesty with yourself about whether you really don't care about stuff, or are just checked out. The thing I figured out a while back is that you get a great return on emotional labor investment by being explicit about your needs, and not expecting people to anticipate them. I mean, it's great if they do, but there's a nice two-way bit of labor happening when one person says "Would you do the dishes tonight?" and the other person does it without being an ass because the dishes do need to be done, and there's a reason he or she was asked explicitly to do them.
Jul. 27th, 2015 11:01 pm (UTC)
Reading this post, you & I are surprisingly alike in some ways (and not in others so don't read too much into it.) But anyway, I really liked this post and I don't know if I have the energy to say exactly why. But partially in having non-traditional relationships that seem so normal to us, so it seems so odd that everyone else seems to have the same kind of relationships that they can all relate to, and we're like "um...well...why do you have to do it that way if you don't like it". Not sure if that made sense.

also being nice to the sandwich guy thing. Yes. I always wonder if that matters, but I do try to do it (just be nice to people in general, appreciate people when other people might take them for granted, notice them, etc.).
Jul. 28th, 2015 03:55 am (UTC)
I was honestly shocked by how many women ended up in those situations and really resentful over it. I think if I had somehow managed to hook up with somebody with that set of expectations, the jig would have been up the SECOND they saw my filthy-ass apartment and I'd have been dumped in a heartbeat.

I think it's SO STRANGE when people get married without living together first, and that thread is a good set of reasons why it's a bad idea. Though a lot of the stories are from people who moved in together and found that formerly Grown Ass Adults suddenly turned into babies once they had a woman living with them, so even that's not a guarantee of anything.

I found a lot more to personally identify with later in the thread when the focus turned more toward the work of maintaining friendships and emotional labor in the workplace, but the whole thing was just riveting.
Jul. 27th, 2015 11:21 pm (UTC)
Christmas CArds ...that was in one of the comments.

I always did ALL THAT. Then one year I said "Do you care if you don't send holiday cards?" And the answer was - no I don't care, and I assumed you were spending all that energy on it because you cared. And I realized that few of my friends bother to reciprocate with cards, and did I get mad at them for not sending them? No, mostly I was mad about all the time I spent on them every year.

So...no more Christmas cards it is.

But of course I do find that a lot of "school stuff", I have assumed and I do ask for help now with school/kid stuff, and I get it if I ask but I tend to assume ownership of everything . But that may be a project manager trait, not a female trait.
Jul. 28th, 2015 03:34 am (UTC)
Yeah, Christmas cards were never a thing my parents did, so I think of them as optional. I like getting them, because I like my friends, and I like seeing the cute family portraits or whatever they do. I'd rather write postcards on a solo vacation because I enjoy doing that AND people enjoy getting the postcards. It's probably more work than Christmas cards would be, because I write them all by hand and pick out different cards for every person/household, but it doesn't feel like an obligation (and I don't do it for every trip).
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 28th, 2015 12:31 pm (UTC)
RIGHT?! I had a lot of moments like that reading the MeFi comments. Quite a few "Oh! THERE I AM!" in the stories of other people. The diversity of experience is pretty great, once you get past the early "ME TOO!" part of the thread.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )