One might think the holiday season would be non-stop fun, what with all the bright lights and gift-giving. But there's also something exhausting about writing all those Christmas cards and finding the perfect pair of socks for your father-in-law. That's because those tasks are real work—they require a degree of what's known as "emotional labor," a term sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined in 1979 to describe what people do when they suppress their own emotions to soothe or make others happy. "This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling," Hochschild writes, "and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality."
Hochschild was talking specifically about jobs requiring emotional labor, like being a flight attendant or a waitress. But maintaining personal relationships can require a lot of emotional labor too. This year, an extraordinary conversation emerged online about personal emotional labor, and how American culture expects women and people of color to engage in more emotional labor than their white male peers. (There's even a highlights sheet, which we loved.) In this emotionally taxing time of year, we thought it might be helpful to remind you that there's plenty of science to support the notion that emotional labor is both real and unfairly distributed—and can take a toll on a person, if undervalued.
For one, there are the studies that show women in heterosexual relationships and black Americans in the workplace perform extra emotional labor compared to their partners and white co-workers. Angela Chen covered this research and more in a Five Studies in October. Pacific Standard also wrote about a study that found couples have a lower sense of well-being when one person's job entails a lot of emotional labor, which suggests too much emotional labor in one realm of life can hurt other facets.
But it isn't only performing too much emotional labor; not engaging in enough emotional labor can also be harmful, as MetaFilter user Eyebrows McGee noted. There are numerous studies showing men married to women are more likely to die soon after their spouses than women married to men. That's in part because of social isolation. Due to cultural expectations, the emotional labor of keeping up with the couple's friends more often falls upon the woman in a husband-wife duo. But that means that if the missus goes first, the man is left bereft of not only his spouse, but also close relationships with friends and family who might otherwise offer him support and good health. As Eyebrows McGee puts it: "Go send your college roommate a 'thinking of you!' card so he doesn't croak."
This holiday season, take a moment to consider what emotional labor you undertake—or avoid. Making sure you perform it equally is a good gift for everyone.