One point of agreement between myself and ‘mainstream’ feminism is that emotional labour is a real thing.
From my daily interactions with friends and family, it’s very clear that there are people who take initiative to facilitate the smooth running of gatherings and shared meals, people who think about what their friends and other halves might need or want in the short-term and execute that before they need to be asked, people who are aware of their surroundings and the other people around them and adjust their behaviour accordingly (moderate tone of voice on the train, moderate language in front of children, make themselves small so that others can get off the tube) – and there are people who don’t.
If this is an unfamiliar concept, or if you think it’s whiny mumbo-jumbo, here is my attempt to persuade you it’s real via some contrived anecdotes.
Ashley and Parker hosted a dinner party for four friends. Everyone finished eating about fifteen minutes ago and all are engrossed in a lively conversation about politics. Ashley is thinking that perhaps their guests might want pudding soon, and that it might be a nicer environment for everyone if they weren’t all sitting with the remainder of the gravy congealing under their noses. These thoughts, buzzing away in the background, distract from full engagement with the conversation. Parker is continuing to converse, seemingly without difficulty. Ashley wonders whether the guests don’t care about the dirty plates, and whether it would break up the conversation to start clearing them away. Perhaps they would feel obliged to help and then the conversation would be over. Ashley also remembers that the pudding needs to be eaten before it cools down. Ashley starts to clear up. Parker takes this as a sign that Ashley likes to clear plates and continues the conversation without helping.
One of Hayden and Jamie’s children turns 10 in two weeks. There’s a calendar hanging in the kitchen, with the date very clearly marked in red pen so as to be inescapable. Both parents regularly check the calendar. The calendar check is a daily reminder for Hayden that the child’s birthday is coming up. Two weeks out seems an appropriate time to think about buying a present. Hayden brings up the topic.
“What do you think River would like?” Hayden asks Jamie.
“Ooh, I’m not sure.”
“Do you think he would like the Fully Automatic Next Generation Robot 3000 that just came out at Toys’R’Us?”
“Maybe. You know him better.”
“I think he might.”
“OK. Shall we get that then?”
“Why don’t we confirm with him. One of us should drop a hint.”
“Oh, you’re much better at that than me.”
Hayden concocts an elaborate plan to elicit some hints from their son without giving the game away. After all that, it’s little relief that Jamie is the one to run down to the store and buy the toy.
Mackenzie and Carter have different tolerances for tidiness in the house. Mackenzie knows very well that Carter prefers the house to be ship-shape and does try to maintain basic cleanliness, but, being human, often slips up. The dirty dishes from lunch are sitting in the sink waiting to be washed. Mackenzie and Carter are bringing in their shopping bags from the car. Each makes three trips. Mackenzie sees the dishes and, on the third run, makes a mental note to wash them after putting the shopping away – it’s Mackenzie’s turn for the job, after all. But each successive trip is an increasing source of unease at the dirty environment for poor Carter. In the end Carter can’t stand to look at them any longer and washes up before Mackenzie gets the chance.
Are any of these sounding familiar yet?
Oops … wrong Labour
Ashley, Parker and their guests are enjoying an After Eight in the living room following a well-received three-course dinner. A conversation about religion is in full flow. One of the guests appears not to have understood Parker’s point. It’s a minor point and the conversation could proceed perfectly well without it. Parker halts the flow of things, preventing one of the other guests from stepping in with a reply, to make sure their guest fully understands. A five-minute diversion ensues in which Parker and this guest thrash out the precise meaning of the point while the other guests sip their coffee. Ashley would have let it go at once, and finds the silence of the other guests around an intense one-on-one embarrassing. Ashley would much rather sacrifice a small point of understanding in favour of all the guests being able to participate.
Taylor gets on the bus and spots a classmate, Riley, a few rows ahead. Riley has a Sainsbury’s bag resting on the seat next door, and is listening to music. Taylor puts a Waitrose bag down on the adjacent seat and also puts in headphones. At the next stop, a major interchange, most of the bus’ spare seats are taken up. Taylor is immediately aware of the surrounding bustle despite the headphones, and moves the Waitrose bag to the floor, shifting along to make way for another passenger. Riley is engrossed in the music and does nothing with the Sainsbury’s bag, meaning an elderly lady has to stay on her feet for the duration of the journey.
“What shall we have for dinner, dear?” Rees starts the conversation, wanting to make sure both partners are happy with their food choice.
“Oh, whatever you like, dear,” replies Logan. Logan thinks ceding to Rees’ preferences is a loving gesture. Rees resents having to spend energy making the decision, especially since Logan doesn’t like any of Rees’ favourite foods.
What am I getting at?
I’m trying to get at the idea that maintenance of a relationship, the smooth running of a social gathering, cohesion between strangers, that is, the functioning of society at large, consists of something more than the manual labour involved. Is that so hard to believe?! (And, of course, that one person is doing the relevant heavy lifting and the other isn’t.) It consists of being aware of your surroundings and social dynamics, anticipating the needs of others, thinking about what to do and coming up with a plan rather than simply contributing to whatever plan someone else has come up with, as you can see in some of the thinking of the characters in these scenarios.
Perhaps it’s hard to believe because my scenarios are so contrived. It’s true, they don’t read particularly well. That’s because I used gender-neutral names and avoided all gendered pronouns (which was actually quite hard).
However, perhaps some of you will have assumed the genders involved. Perhaps you will have read the characters doing the emotional labour as women? That would be interesting to know. It’s said that emotional labour is a gendered phenomenon, that women do more emotional labour both at work and in the domestic settings my scenarios describe, are expected (by whom?) to do more, and are thought badly of if they don’t – more so than men. If that’s true, the stats – and not just a few anecdotes – will tell us.
(Although if you’re interested there are some more gendered anecdotes in the cartoon strip here.)
What can I do about it?
A) Be like Ryan Gosling:
B) If you still don’t recognise this phenomenon, whatever gender you are, then I suggest you need more emotional awareness. It will make you a more considerate person and improve your relationships (of all sorts). Here are two pro tips to end with …
Pro tip #1
You think you do 50% of the laundry because you and your other half put on an equal amount of washes? Well, what does your typical load of washing consist of? Do you grab whatever’s at the top of the laundry basket, or do you think carefully in advance and time your white washes to coincide with the kids’ tennis match?
Pro tip #2
You think you had a 50% share in preparing dinner because you did 50% of the chopping and stirring? Well, which of the following three options is your usual preface to this work?
Option 1: “Let me help cook dinner. What can I do?”
If you don’t know what to do, when you can see what’s on the hob and what’s waiting to be chopped, this suggests you haven’t spent enough time in the kitchen, or don’t know how to prepare meals. It suggests you don’t know what’s on the menu, because you haven’t taken the trouble of deciding what the family should eat, and what you can get away with feeding your fussy kids. It says the other person is really in charge of the household and has the additional trouble of dividing up the tasks.
Well, how about …
Option 2: “Let me help cook dinner. Do the potatoes need seasoning?”
Alright, you’ve brought a suggestion to the table. This is theoretically more helpful than waiting to be given a task by the head chef. But it’s butting into a process that has already been started with, perhaps, the slightest hint of ‘now that I’m here the food will be correctly seasoned’.
No. Optimally, you will have got on with your task having said:
Option 3: “Let me help cook dinner. I’ll start on that side dish we agreed on last week.”
This shows that you were both involved in the planning, that you consequently and rightly know what needs to be done and don’t need the other party to perform further mental delegation and supervision work before you get stuck in.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Is this a phenomenon you’ve experienced in action but not been able to put a name to? Do you not recognise this phenomenon at all? Do you know the stats (I certainly don’t)? Do you think it’s a gender thing?