Woman is a Rational Animal

Many people can easily recollect the familiar feeling of sitting in a restaurant, greeted by the polite welcome and smile of a waiter or waitress. It feels nice to exchange impersonal and expected greetings with them, as you are entrusting the enjoyment of your meal to them. One may remember a time when they were met with a surly waiter and the unpleasant reaction that this person might elicit. In service industries like the restaurant industry, this idea of an established expectation of polite and neutral kindness is essential. It is what brings customers back or can push them away with a sour taste. But what goes behind these smiles and politeness, and can we quantify it? This is an idea defined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild as “emotional labor.”

Hochschild is an American professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published nine books, including The Second Shift, The Managed Heart, and The Time Bind. Known primarily for shaping the connection of the social sciences with the study of human emotions, her work connects the emotions that one feels to the choices, morals, and social codes that one follows with the underlying causes of those emotions. She argues that the expression and management of emotion are social processes. What people feel and express depends on societal norms, one’s social category and position, and cultural factors.[1]

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1940, Hochschild was the child of a US diplomat. The experience she had as a young child viewing her father’s “diplomatic” relationships would later feed into her social theories, in particular that of emotional labor. She described a scene from her childhood in her book The Managed Heart,

“I found myself passing a dish of peanuts among many guests and looking up at their smiles; diplomatic smiles can look different when seen from below than when seen straight on. Afterwards I would listen to my mother and father interpret various gestures. The tight smile of the Bulgarian emissary, the averted glance of the Chinese consul . . . Had I passed the peanuts to a person, I wondered, or to an actor? Where did the person end and the act begin? Just how is a person related to an act?”[2]

Arlie Russell Hochschild Speaking at Stanford University. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

She noticed at this moment the importance of emotional control and projection for the role of a diplomat. Almost as important as the words that they would say, their body language and projected emotions would influence the behavior and thoughts of those around them. Emotional labor, Hochschild defines as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value.” She uses the terms emotion work or emotion management to refer to these same acts done in a private context where they have use-value.[3]

Hochschild’s work was inspired by her study as a graduate student of sociologist C. Wright Mills. His quotation, “The one area of her occupational lift in which she might be ‘free to act,’ the area of her own personality, must now also be managed, must become the alert yet obsequious instrument by which goods are distributed,” precedes the first page of her breakout book, The Managed Heart. Yet Mills did not completely encompass the idea that Hochschild thought was essential to the idea of emotions and personality as a good to be sold. She described,

“Mills seemed to assume that in order to sell personality, one need only have it. Yet simply having personality does not make one a diplomat, any more than having muscles makes one an athlete. What was missing was a sense of the active emotional labor involved in the selling. This labor, it seemed to me, might be one part of a distinctly patterned yet invisible emotional system—a system composed of individual acts of ’emotion work,’ social ‘feeling rules,’ and a great variety of exchanges between people in private and public life.”[4]

The primary example used in The Managed Heart is the example of a flight attendant. While a flight attendant might do physical labor by pushing metal carts down aisles or mental labor by preparing for emergency landings and evacuations, there is another labor they do, that which requires the suppression or induction of certain feelings to sustain an outward appearance which produces a proper state of mind in others. In this case, it must elicit the sense of being in a safe and agreeable environment. She states that “this kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”[5] This labor is not just for us, the consumer, however. Hochschild uses an anecdote from her time observing the training process for new flight attendants, in which they were told, “Now girls, I want you to go out there and really smile. Your smile is your biggest asset. I want you to go out there and use it. Smile. Really smile. Really lay it on.”[6] Their smiles reflect the company’s disposition – its confidence that its planes will not crash, its reassurance that departures and arrivals will be on time, its welcome, and its invitation to return.[7] As important to the company as their ability to lead a safety briefing or pour drinks, the control of one’s emotions to display a certain desirable few is essential to this industry. Just like physical labor, it is imperative that the worker can separate themselves from the work that they are doing. To survive in their jobs, one must mentally detach themselves – the factory or mine worker from his own body and physical labor, and the flight attendant from her own feelings and emotional labor.[8]

Hochschild also points out that this emotional labor often causes its own problems for those who must do it. She described the experience of women in India who are paid surrogate mothers – for mostly American and European families. These women often have children of their own to care for, and it is their need for money to support their families that drives them to make the choice to become surrogates. One of these women, a twenty-eight-year-old with two children of her own told Hochschild, “Madame-doctor tells us to think of our wombs as carriers, and I do that. But I try to keep from getting too attached to the baby I’m carrying. I remind myself of my own children.”[9] Emotional stress can easily come from being put in a position where your emotions cannot be in your own control. One waitress described the stress that can come from the feeling of presenting an emotional mask without the ability to turn it off while working. “You hit so many difficulties, whether it’s with customers or in the kitchen, or things that are going on in your personal life. It’s very hard to keep up that appearance for eight hours consistently.”[10] While some emotional laborers may only have to “put on their mask” for a few hours, many work long hours that allow very little room to breathe. Add onto that the stress of dealing with a troublesome customer or any other impediment to your day, and that labor becomes one of the most difficult job aspects to perform.

The first edition of Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Source: Wikipedia.

Yet we’ve jumped ahead of an important question that is essential to being able to describe emotional labor: What makes emotions something that we can commodify? Emotions, according to Hochschild, are mostly social, constructed in response to what we feel. Our cultures give us the language to describe what we feel, and that language can differ between cultures. She highlights an example of this in the Tahitian language that has one word for “sick,” which in English would include the feelings associated with envy, grief, or depression. If our emotions are the constructed way of categorizing our feelings, what would Hochschild define as a feeling? This she defines “as a sense, like the sense of hearing or sight. In a general way, we experience it when bodily sensations are joined with what we see or imagine.”[11] There is another aspect of feeling, that of thinking what we should feel, which she describes as feeling rules. Feeling rules themselves are also rooted in our culture. They are standards to determine what is correctly owed in the context of an emotional transaction. Through them, we tell what is ‘due’ in each relation, each role.[12] We feel happy at a wedding or sad at a funeral. We follow feeling rules because they answer the question of what, in this situation, should I be feeling? We learn these feeling rules from a very young age as the older people around us encourage and enforce them, often without realizing what they are. This means that we learn how to express and manage our emotions in the private sphere, and then later through public life.

Emotional labor has become a buzzword in sociology in the years since its creation. Every year more and more uses of it in books and articles appear – to the detriment of the word itself. Hochschild has spoken out in recent years about the drift of the term “emotional labor” and how it is being used in contexts that do not apply to the original idea. Some examples of this include defining emotional labor as “The duties that are expected of you, but go unnoticed,” or “Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.”[13]  Hochschild herself in an interview with The Atlantic said,

“It’s being used, for example, to refer to the enacting of to-do lists in daily life—pick up the laundry, shop for potatoes, that kind of thing. Which I think is an overextension. It’s also being applied to perfectionism: You’ve absolutely got to do the perfect Christmas holiday. And that can be a confusion and an overextension. I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor. I would say that. But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied.”[14]

While the term has opened discussions of the work that often goes unappreciated which many people do on a daily basis, when it becomes applied to more than it was originally defined around, it is possible to lose some of the power it holds. Hochschild has supported the extension and growth of this field since her primary publications in the 1980s and has been very supportive of expanding applications of the concept of emotional labor – she simply wants to see that these applications do the term the justice she believes it deserves.

It is especially interesting to look at Hochschild’s theories in the context of a post-covid society. Most of us remember a time when there were only a select group of people, deemed “essential workers,” who were told to still go to their jobs in person. These groups – including healthcare workers and grocery store workers – were expected to engage in emotional labor. Many healthcare workers at the time expressed their discomfort with having to ignore their own fears for themselves and their families in order to alleviate the fears of the patients whom they were treating. Store clerks were put in their own precarious balancing act between maskless shoppers refusing to comply with store policies and the expectation that they keep shoppers happy and excited to continue frequenting their establishments. They juggle their own fears for their personal safety and their professional steadiness in the face of a dangerous pandemic. Hochschild defined two different types of emotional labor most prevalent in covid times. The first “bracketing” refers to the act of putting our own anxieties behind us. This means detaching our mental energy from the emotions we may feel, like fear, anxiety, or sadness.[15] The second is called “bridging.” It refers to focusing on the needs of COVID-19 victims and empathizing with them.[16] They must simultaneously engage with and brush aside emotions caused by the surrounding experiences. An emotional laborer must, as she puts it “absorb – meaning to manage feelings about – immediate horrors while not feeling overwhelmed by them.”[17] The application of these concepts also brings up important questions about different industries and their expectations of service to their customers. The healthcare industry has invested time and money into training doctors and nurses to have positive bedside manners. They are already expected to be able to separate the emotional trauma of losing a patient, potentially putting themselves at risk, or dealing with a high-stress environment. Grocery store workers (and other essential workers like transportation service workers) on the other hand, are often only trained in how to politely interact with customers. There is little emotional training for how to deal with a high-stress position, as generally working at a grocery store does not involve putting your own health and safety on the line. This all changes in a pandemic when people with little emotional labor training are expected to learn new management skills very quickly. The emotional stress of taking on this labor, in both jobs that generally require it (ie nurses and doctors) or in those that were newly introduced to it (ie grocery store workers) has now been shown to have caused PTSD, anxiety, and burnout in many frontline workers.[18]

Today, Hochschild continues to research and theorize about the ways that our emotions are influencing our social interactions. Her most recent publication Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right follows Hochschild as she spent 5 years living with and speaking to Tea Party supporters in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Hochschild was interested in understanding why the area would have little support for environmental regulation even when the area itself has high levels of waterway pollution and a high concentration of petrochemical plants. To connect with this group, Hochschild worked on the edge of what she coins an “empathy wall” – defined as “an obstacle to a deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different views or those whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” She found that the primarily older, white, and disproportionately male supporters of the tea party had grown up under the assumption that they would be able to advance socially through hard work. At the same time as a wage and earnings squeeze of the last decades and rising economic inequality, there has been rising cultural pressure for women and minorities to be recognized in policy. This has led it to be perceived that the current American dream was being taken by women, immigrants, and racial minorities, leaving them behind. These feelings – the emotions of loss and pain – lie behind the “reflex-like” blaming of government regulation for the lack of economic growth and for environmental or social problems. The empathy wall she applies, allows readers to explore, see, and even empathize with the emotions of this group, without necessarily agreeing or encouraging their beliefs.[19]

It is clear to see the lasting impact and applications of Hochschild’s research into our current social and political culture. Her exploration of the emotions that lay behind the social norms which our social framework in many industries lay upon has changed the way we discuss labor. The application of the concept of emotional labor to research on the social effects of COVID-19 and her research on the emotional reasoning behind the rising popularity of conservative political ideals in the US shows how topical her social theories are. While we have heard a lot this year of sociologists who hoped to make sociology study the actual behaviors of individuals, Hochschild has revolutionized the field by not only looking at the behaviors of individuals but what lies behind those behaviors. Emotions are an inescapable part of everyday life – one that should be respected and studied. Hochschild does just that, and in doing so allows us to see ourselves more deeply – our behavior, what is expected of us, and how we shape the society around us.


About the Author:

Elizabeth Foster is a 2nd-year undergraduate student from the Bay Area. She is currently completing the pre-medicine track and majoring in History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine. Outside of her coursework, she is a singer in multiple vocal groups on campus and loves collecting vintage records and books.



Featured Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Norwegian_flight_attendant.jpg

[1]  Wharton, “The Sociology of Arlie Hochschild,” 459–464.

[2] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, ix.

[3] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 7.

[4] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, x.

[5] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 6-7.

[6] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 4.

[7] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 4.

[8] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 17.

[9] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, xiv.

[10] Green, “The Emotional Labor of Waitressing.”

[11] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 8.

[12] Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 18.

[13] Beck, “The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’.”

[14] Beck, “The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’.”

[15] Stix, “Emotional Labor Is a Store Clerk Confronting a Maskless Customer.”

[16] Stix, “Emotional Labor Is a Store Clerk Confronting a Maskless Customer.”

[17] Stix, “Emotional Labor Is a Store Clerk Confronting a Maskless Customer.”

[18] d’Ettorre, Gabriele et al. “Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Healthcare Workers Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review.”

[19] Deller, “Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild.”


“Arlie Russell Hochschild.” Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com, June 1, 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/hochschild-arlie-russell-1940.

Beck, Julie. “The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 26, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/11/arlie-hochschild-housework-isnt-emotional-labor/576637/.

Deller, Rose. “Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild.” LSE Review of Books, January 14, 2019. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2019/01/14/book-review-strangers-in-their-own-land-anger-and-mourning-on-the-american-right-by-arlie-russell-hochschild/.

d’Ettorre, Gabriele, Giancarlo Ceccarelli, Letizia Santinelli, Paolo Vassalini, Giuseppe Pietro Innocenti, Francesco Alessandri, Alexia E. Koukopoulos, Alessandro Russo, Gabriella d’Ettorre, and Lorenzo Tarsitani. “Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Healthcare Workers Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 2 (January 12, 2021): 601. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020601.

Green, Adrienne. “The Emotional Labor of Waitressing.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 26, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/11/waitress/507842/.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.

Stix, Gary. “Emotional Labor Is a Store Clerk Confronting a Maskless Customer.” Scientific American. Scientific American, September 10, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emotional-labor-is-a-store-clerk-confronting-a-maskless-customer/.

Wharton, Amy S. “The Sociology of Arlie Hochschild.” Work and Occupations 38, no. 4 (2011): 459–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/0730888411418921.

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