Dear leftist men: you don’t get to define the term “emotional labour”

This tweet, posted last month on twitter and shared by a huge number of leftist men, is making me completely exhausted:

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The thing is, words evolve. Sometimes we don’t get to control how that goes, and that’s true of lots of leftist concepts just like it is for anything else.

More importantly, I’m not actually sure that this is changing the meaning of the term “emotional labour” anyway, because this person’s take doesn’t account for gender.

Any take on emotional labour that doesn’t account for gender is meaningless. The history of the term demonstrates this: it was coined to describe “the work of managing one’s own emotions that [is] required by certain professions. Flight attendants, who are expected to smile and be friendly even in stressful situations, are the canonical example.” Nurses, waitresses, and nannies do a lot of emotional labour in their work. This was always about gender because those are gendered professions with gendered expectations for performance.

This emotional labour is a part of what capitalists call effective customer service. Businesses expect it of their front-line workers because it’s a key part of customer loyalty. Making things convenient and good-feeling for the customer brings them back again.

An effective frontline worker is expected to appear happy and positive no matter what, and it’s extremly challenging to do day-in, day-out, when everybody sometimes has bad days.

I work as a fundraiser for a nonprofit agency, and my work includes some emotional labour too. A big part of my job is to make donors feel good about themselves so they will donate again in the future. That means I have to act positive and friendly around them, smiling and being warm and pleasant, even when I’m having a bad day. It’s work. When I’m tired, stressed out or depressed, it’s extra hard.

When I’m effective at my job, the result is that people feel validated and good. And that’s what an effective nurse, teacher, flight attendant, or waitress does too.

The problem is the men1 — perhaps mainly white men — who expect this constant validation not only from their baristas, bank tellers and massage therapists, but also from their wives, girlfriends, sisters, coworkers and roommates.

These men treat women as an unlimited source of comfort, validation, and backup.

There are good, feminist men who don’t expect this, but I’m not sure they realize how common it still is for women to experience this problem. How often we pick up after men’s messes. How often we suck up our own feelings so we can be there to comfort them. How often we tell them everything’s okay when it’s not, because it’s what we have to do to maintain the peace. 

There is scene in an episode of Mad Men that I’ve always found unsettling to watch. A group of 1960s businesspeople (mostly men) are sitting around a board room table, strategizing about a client meeting. “We will listen more than we will speak,” says one man. An older man chimes in: “like a good girlfriend”.

That’s what was expected of women in that decade, to always validate the men in their lives. In 2019, men are a lot less likely to admit this expecation, but they still have it.

In one way, lots has changed for women since the 1960s. More women work for pay, and more women (though mostly white women) play bigger roles in politics. Women are doing things differently and asserting ourselves and our place in the public sphere.

But the relationships between men and women in the private sphere are not necessarily changing. Boys are not being raised to do the housework or planning or emotional support that we expect girls to do from a young age. A lot of millenial men rely on women — moms, partners, friends, or parents — to help them plan their lives, clean their rooms, and pick up the emotional pieces when they fail. A recent study showed that married women do more housework than single mothers. The researchers theorized that this is because men have certain expectations of what their wives will do to keep up appearances.

There’s nothing wrong with relying on others. But men rely on women disproportionally, and it allows many of them to never learn to problem solve, to plan, or to pick up after themselves.

And the work for women isn’t limited to the reproductive labour of cleaning and housework. It’s also the work of planning, caring, and supporting their emotional needs. We pad our male friends’ egos when things don’t go their way, and we become household managers for our male roommates when they lack the skill to plan or notice when things need to be done. Despite the fact that I was raised by a feminist, as a woman I have had to learn how to do this because the reality is, it’s the only way to get along with most men.

The problem is, we have to do this at the expense of our own emotional needs.

The work and the skill needed for this are the same as what frontline customer service workers do. When I know that I need to get along with a male relative, fellow activist or housemate, it’s the same smile, the same positivity, the same validation that I use in my paid work with donors, often at the expense of being honest about what’s going on with me.

(And before you object, yes there are good men who don’t require this kind of constant attention, but they are the exception, and they are not the subject here.)

This is the cost of men who don’t know how to handle other people’s feelings, who don’t know how to ask for consent before venting to someone, who don’t know how to plan or how to look around, find what needs to be done, and just do it. This is the cost of having generations of men who don’t know how to live their lives without being constantly validated.

Even when men, clasically, demand that the women they meet on the street give them a smile, they are expecting emotional labour to be done for them. They’re looking for validation even from strangers on the street.

I don’t think that even most millenial men realize how much we do for them. They are too accustomed to it. Men, particularly white men, have been trained that life is supposed to be convenient for them. That they can get away without learning to do these things for themselves. It’s extremely challening for feminists do anything to change the situation, because men treat inconvenience like it is some kind of harm.

I was for a time in a toxic relationship with a self-described feminist man who expected our relationship to always be convenient for him. When I demanded that we share planning and household chores equally, he acted like it was a violation of his boundaries. I think he genuinely thought of himself as a feminist, but his previous partner had set a standard by doing all the household chores herself, something I refused to do. He was accustomed to having not only the household chores, but all the planning and mental load of household management done for him, and he had never learned how to do it himself.

In the two years since I ended that relationship, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my other (platonic) relationships with men. I’ve gotten better at putting up boundaries. If a man asks me for a favour, I’ll ask myself, if our positions were reversed, would he show up for me?

This is why I know htat when a woman says “pay me for talking about your trauma”, it’s not because she is ice-hearted. It’s because she’s trying to take care of herself. She doesn’t trust that the relationshp be truly caring or reciprocal, so she’s making sure there’s something in it for her.

We are tired of doing more than our share of the comforting, planning, and validating in our personal lives. We want it to be shared equally, and we want relationships to be reciprocal. And if they’re not going to be that way, we demand to be compensated.

If leftist men, who — rightfully — are trying to defend workers, don’t think that the term “emotional labour” applies to this work, it’s because they’re not in a position to realize how much of this work women do in our personal relationships.

The concept of compensation for the work that women do outside of waged employement is not new. Marxist feminists coined the term “reproductive labour” to describe the work done in the private sphere, mostly by women, to feed, clothe and care for workers, and create new workers (i.e. having babies and raising children). This work is as necessary to capitalism as paid work. Some feminists have even advocated that this work should be paid. 

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The term “Emotional labour” was a fabulous development in feminism, because it gave us the language to talk about an important role that women play that is different from the tangible, physical labour of laundry and housework and child-rearing.

The work that women retail clerks put into selling womething to a man requires the same skill that many women use to convince their husbands that something was their idea. The only difference is that in a capitalist world, one of those things is done for pay, and the other is not. Leftist men advocating that “emotional labour” should only refer to paid work are contributing to the idea that the work women do for pay is real work, while the disproportional work than women do to keep men happy in their personal lives is not.

So yes, obviously, in an ideal world, we would all just support each other when it is needed, without any direct compensation. That’s not in question. Women know this, because women are already doing it! Every day, all the time, for each other. Relationships between women, whether platonic, familial or romantic, are by far more reciprocal than relationships between men and women.

Most men probably can’t even imagine the lengths that women will go to help each other out.

I can’t say the same about most of the men I know. Even the leftist ones. Even the “feminist” ones.

The emotional labour of caring for our friends, talking through their problems and their trauma is something that we are willing to do. We just want those relationships to be reciprocal. We want to be able to expect them to help us out in return when we need favours from our friends.

And honestly, when it is truly reciprocal, it feels a lot less like work. It’s like how hobbies are only fun as long as you don’t try to monetize them. Supporting my friends in healthy reciprocal friendships feels a lot less like drudgery and more like, well, love. I am so. happy. to help out my woman friends, literally any time.

So here’s a message for my male friends: I don’t need you to pay me when I help you out with your emotions. I just need to trust that when I need help, you’ll be there for me, too. Is that ever going to happen?

Leftist men: until we create a world where a) I can trust that men are going to reciprocate acts of friendship or b) I don’t need money in order to survive, don’t be surprised if I won’t work for free. You don’t expect me to be an effective sales clerk  without getting properly compensated, why do you expect me to help you figure out your relationships, too?

“Pay me for helping you with your trauma” is setting a boundary. It’s saying, my support is reserved for those with whom support is reciprocal. Or, you can pay me for my time, because I need to make rent.

And if you want me to help you out for free, you might have to establish a healthy, reciprocal, nurturing friendship with me first.

Language evolves. It always has. Feminists are claiming “emotional labour” as a term for something they often find themselves undercompensated and underappreciated for, both in the home and in the workplace. It’s time for our male allies to get on board with that.


Did you learn something from this? Pay for the labour it took to write it and buy me a coffee.

1 I want to acknowledge that this piece doesn’t account for non-binary folks. I’m not non-binary and I can’t speak to the emotional labour that non-binary folks do, or don’t do, and that’s probably a more complicated reality than I have space for when my primary intent is to make a point to leftist men. I know that it is a huge injustice that a lot of nonbinary and other trans folks are out there doing the work of educating cis folks like me about gender and that’s a huge burden we put on them.

Note also that when I use the term “men” I mean and include both cis and trans men. When I use the term “women” I mean both trans and cis women. Ideally this would go without saying but in the current climate where feminism is sometimes used against trans folks, I want to be absolutely clear.

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One thought on “Dear leftist men: you don’t get to define the term “emotional labour”

  1. I think your post is interesting. The topic of “emotional labor” certainly deserves more discussion.

    However, within the workplace, I don’t think emotional labor is strictly a female thing. I am a nurse. If you have a difficult patient or family member, everyone who comes across this individual is doing some emotional labor to deal with this person. It could be the hospital housekeeper or the doctor, male or female. Physicians are taught differently now, that they need to have a different demeanor, not only because it is the right thing to do, but they are more likely to be sued if they are not.

    I also think as a mother, that women should pick out partners to have children that show they will have more of an investment in emotional labor. Don’t wait until you bring the baby home and expect the man to change.

    I also don’t agree that all men regardless of race, have the expectation that life will be convenient for them. Perhaps men of high socioeconomic status? My high school aged son has many friends(male and female) that live a life of daily struggle. My father certainly had advantages conferred to him as a white man, but also had many struggles including growing up in poverty and later serving in the military. He was basically on his own from the time he graduated high school until marrying many years later, without a soft place to fall.

    Anyone who deals with people for a living has the capacity to expend emotional labor.

    Lastly, I have a responsibility to teach my son to be a functional adult and know how to clean the toilet and make supper. Just like my daughter needs to know how to mow the lawn. Many moms(and dads) have failed their sons by putting them out into the world without teaching them basic skills.

    Again I hear your point about emotional labor but I think we should get to know people and their own stories before assuming things like life is convenient for all men.

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