emotional labour

Social Work: Emotional Labour and the Core Mission

Yesterday, I wrote another peer review, this time a gentle and encouraging rejection of an article submitted to a journal. That particular shit sandwich wound up being over 1300 words long–like the Dagwood sandwich of carefully worded peer reviews. It took me all morning to write, because I really wanted to encourage the writer at the same time as make clear just how flawed this particular instantiation of the ideas was.

I’ve also been to two meals with job candidates and other assorted part-social part-intellectual events. I’m finalizing the details for the department holiday party I’m hosting at my house. I’m giving graduate students pep talks about time management and the writing process and how it’s okay to cry sometimes. I’m helping members of my broader network process scathing reviews of cherished work. I’m trying to be a constructive but forceful participant in some discussions about massive structural change in our university teaching and curricula.

It strikes me that a lot of the way that I get my core mission–my research, teaching, and service–done is through deliberate and sustained “social work.” That is, emotional labour greases the track across which everything I do is supposed to slide.

Weird that even in the touchy-feely humanities it needs to be said, but those “soft skills” we always try to indicate we help students master–verbal and written communication, social savvy from historical awareness, self-reflexivity, creative thinking–constitute a kind of emotional labour. And that even in humanities disciplines we tend to undervalue this emotional labour, which we might reframe thus:
plays well with others, can keep a civil tongue in her head, has Kleenexes and pats on the back and kind words for burnt-out students, crafts interactions to be effective without being aggressive.

Sometimes I’m really good at this kind of work and sometimes I’m really not. When I do it right, the results are invariably better than when I let my harsher nature loose and slash and burn my way through the day with Sword of Righteousness aloft. I mean, sometimes, somebody just blows it, and I want to tell them off. Or they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they should, and my instinct is sarcasm. Or someone misses another deadline and I want to drop the hammer down hard. I find that just letting rip in these situations hardly ever achieves the desired outcome. But if I focus my reactions instead on constructing some kind of interaction that is designed to make it more likely that my ultimate goal is going to be met, I get better results from those I work with, students and colleagues and administrators alike.

This is hard. It involves teeth gritting, followed by deep breathing and a short meditation on kindness. It involves a careful consideration of the future beyond the next five minutes. Sometimes it involves sitting on my hands to not launch a tirade at a meeting, or a further 20 minutes on a peer review editing out the sourness, or a phone call to consult a senior colleague on how to deal with a thorny situation.

If you do it really well, this emotional labour is invisible to most of those around you: you seem naturally nice or kind or thoughtful or easy to work with. You make life with the hotheads more bearable, or your students all seem to graduate faster, or the committees you sit on seem to laugh a lot. The work might get ascribed to personality, or some kind of intrinsic nature, and become invisible as labour to others. Does that matter?

Like so many other things that women often excel at when compared to men, it seems like emotional labour is a kind of skill we resist considering as real work. I don’t want to get a merit score on personality. But I would like to see more open recognition of the fact that when some people are perhaps easier to work with than others, it’s probably not as easy as it looks. It might be deliberate. It ought to be celebrated.

What kinds of emotional labour do you exert in your day to day work? And is it recognized? Should it be?

4 thoughts on “Social Work: Emotional Labour and the Core Mission

  1. As usual, great stuff in here Aimée.

    Soon you'll face a new sort of emotional labour, once “… or a phone call to consult a senior colleague on how to deal with a thorny situation” becomes less of an option for you because you'll be the senior colleague people are coming to. It's hard not letting the panic show in your eyes when people come to you. Maintaining that calm demeanor while temporizing and hoping for inspiration, now that's some work for ya.

    Alas, I think in the academy this emotional work is recognized mostly by other people who do it too. There are a fair number of people who think that letting it rip is just “honesty”. Saying something honest that someone might actually listen to … that's a real achievement.


  2. I just want to chime in to say that I agree with this: “Saying something honest that someone might actually listen to … that's a reach achievement”. I am learning how to take the raw material of what I'd like to say to someone and my desire to not make waves and bring the two streams together to achieve something beautiful like telling a truth people will hear and respect. Wow, the things we have to learn as young scholars and graduate students, which continue to be issues throughout our careers.


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