Jordan's Blog - Follow-up to Learning about emotional labor

Home | Archive | About | Subscribe

Follow-up to Learning about emotional labor

Jordan 2017-10-21

I first saw Gemma Hartley’s emotional labor article on Facebook. After putting together my thoughts, I saw the same article on Hackernews, which I generally regard as having thoughtful comments sections. Here are some of the top comments:

“If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out—reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry—…”

That all sounds like household management with some relationship management thrown in. What does it have to do with labouring over emotions? It sounds like this person needs a partner who shares more household responsibilities and has an organization and cleanliness habit that is more in line with their own.


This sounds like a very dysfunctional marriage. I have been observing what I consider are good marriages that have stood the test of time. Marriages where they have been married 30, 40, 50 years and are still crazy about each other. Here are some things that I have found.

<The comment lists 5 fairly general values. Communication, loyalty etc. I think you get the idea>

These thing should be done by both husband and wife. The author, goes against everyone of them. She expects the husband to read her mind. The whole article feels like some primal cry for appreciation and notice.

If these, the second and third highest voted comments, paint a picture of the Hackernews demographic as too-critical-and-know-it-all-y (a picture which was somehow not already painted by the fact that the platform’s name is hacker-news) you can rejoice in the most upvoted comment:

This is a topic where the more I learned about it the more I opened my eyes to it and saw it happening on my own life.

I’m very easy going and there isn’t much I get too worked up about. My wife, on the other hand, is a meticulous planner. I could see her getting stressed out making decisions for a vacation. I realized that by not caring, I wasn’t helping and offloading the burden to her. Now I truly didn’t care if we went to restaurant A or restaurant B, so she always had to make the decision. Since realizing this I’ve relieved her more from all the decision making, even if I really don’t care about the outcome. Why should I do this? Well, because she’s my wife and while I may not care which restaurant we go to, I care about her.

TL;DR It’s real and I decided to do take up more of this emotional labor in life.

(If like me you felt a visceral repulsion from the first two comments but not the third, consider the possibility that it might not be the know-it-all-y-ness that you take issue with, but the fact that the know-it-all happens to disagree.)

Am I just listing these comments because I wanted to wave it in your face how original and creative my personal take on the article was? Partly, yes. And partly, I think this serves as a neat example to talk about some other stuff.

The first comment points out that the concept of emotional labor as Hartley uses it doesn’t seem well defined. When a category becomes so broad that it fails to rule anything out it stops being useful. I don’t disagree that Hartley doesn’t give a concrete definition of what she means by the term, but she does seem to be vaguely gesturing at a cluster of related ideas. I think this comment makes the mistake of pointing out an accurate criticism and then using it as an excuse to disregard the rest of the argument being made. The comment goes on to reclassify the issue as a non-gendered issue by framing it as “this person needs a partner who shares more household responsibilities” even though the whole point of the article was that there is something happening related to the fact that Hartley is a woman and her husband is a man. This is a thought pattern that you can recognize by thinking to yourself, “I don’t think I understand X, and I think it’s because the original author didn’t do a great job of explaining it.“ At this point you can investigate X yourself, or you can notice that X is crucial to this argument that you disagree with and pretend that it explains your disagreement. If your goal is to not change your mind, and you’re actually just looking for ways to prove that you don’t have to change your mind then this will be your preferred choice. But if your goal is to actually be right, it might be useful to fill in your understanding of X while you’re here so you can follow the rest of the argument. (We call this being charitable.)

The second comment does this a little too, when it states “these things should be done by both husband and wife.” Again, I don’t disagree, but the entire point of the article was that there’s something related to the differences in socialization of men and women, so I don’t think the right way to respond is “society expects things of BOTH men and women.” There’s an extent to which that statement is true, and the exact length of that extent is the complement of the extent to which Hartley’s thesis is true. You shouldn’t respond to the claim “part of this wooden horse is being painted green, and I think we should stop painting it green because green paint contains lead” by saying “you’re missing the fact that part of the wooden horse is blue.” You’ll just confuse people who otherwise probably could have benefited from learning that green paint contains lead.

Another mistake the second comment makes is that it gets personal. This is different than offering criticism. I often notice myself interpreting criticism as a personal attack, especially when its criticism of work that feels like an extension of myself, or maybe a purer expression of myself. But I think in this case when the comment says “this sounds like a very dysfunctional marriage… her first loyalty seems to be to feminism, and not to her family,” we can default to the easy outraged response: you don’t know this person. You don’t know her husband. You don’t know her marriage. And if you think you know enough about her from one emotionally charged article to decide that her marriage is dysfunctional and she isn’t loyal to her family then I have a bridge to teach you how to build.

The third comment, and the most upvoted, is hard to be angry at because it’s worded in such a positive manner. My only response to this one is that it doesn’t mention what I consider to be the issue with Hartley’s article, and write about in my response, but you can’t fault a comment for not being an essay. Mostly I included it so you don’t start thinking that Hackernews is a bunch of know-it-alls-who-disagree-with-me.

A last response, which didn’t come from a comment section but came from real life: maybe the reason the article is not a rigorous and impeccable proof from first principles is because it was never meant to be an argument – maybe the article is just a rant, a way to vent frustration?

And I believe this response makes the worst mistake.

First let me try and put my finger on specific aspects of the article that make me deem it unlikely to be just a rant and not an argument. For one thing, it smoothly transitions from her personal anecdote to quotes from sociologists and professors of communication; experts painting in broad strokes about the state of society and the dynamic between men and women at a macroscopic level. The article ends with a sort of call to action, in hopes that our future generations might learn to rid themselves of such needless weight. The article’s caption is “stop calling women nags.” And (need I bring this up again?) the banner photo for the article is a yellow rubber glove giving you the finger. All of this together means you’re going to have a hard time thinking that this article is “a woman sharing her feelings” and not “an activist crafting an argument drawing on personal experience.”

(I’ll concede that the banner photo does fit with either possibility; it would probably be very cathartic to deliver an emotional rant in person and then end it with a showy and ceremonial Giving of the Finger.)

But more generally I am wary of this kind of response because it retreats in a very strategic way. Saying “the article wasn’t meant to be an argument, it’s just an author sharing how she feels” is a fully general excuse that you can use to defend basically anything, and it’s something you only do if you think of criticism as the enemy rather than a shared way of arriving at the truth. It’s a motte-and-bailey trick in which your opponent takes a strong stance and then wordlessly retreats to an uncontroversial stance once you make your argument against the first stance, only to return to the first stance once you’ve left. Climate change deniers will use this to defend themselves from accusations of being unscientific: “I’m not denying science! Science is about skepticism. All I’m saying is that we don’t have a settled and agreed-upon projection of how long it will be until these threats become immediate.” You think to yourself, “that seems pretty reasonable,” and then they interpret your general agreement with their weak position as another person they’ve convinced of their strong opinion. Saying that an article is just supposed to be self-expression, and who could ever be against self expression, is a trick you can use to hide from any opponent. And I know this because I have a tendency to do it too.

Back in the days when I was young and foolish (up until several months ago, at which point I changed my mind about all my incorrect beliefs) I had a saying that I had learned from Dan Harmon: we don’t punish each other for having feelings. You don’t control how you feel, you control how you act. I can’t help but feel angry sometimes, and I can’t control that, but I can decide not to punch my mirror. So it goes with relationships, when a person feels a certain way, don’t punish them for feeling that way. Encourage sharing of those emotions. When you do A it makes me feel B. When you feel B it makes me feel C. In my first relationship we treated these conversations as part of the burden of being close to someone and wanting to be life partners. I feel unloved. When you feel unloved it makes me feel like I’m being a bad partner.

I wanted to bring this mantra back to my relationships with family members. It never seemed to me like we avoided sharing our feelings growing up but I was definitely not as good at it as my friends, which made me suspect that I just could not see our deficiency from where I stood, being deficient myself. So on family vacations I tried to follow my new rules: if it feels like something unspoken has just happened and caused an issue, talk about the unspoken thing. If I have a talent for putting abstract ideas into words, then maybe I can use it to fix this family deficiency, I found myself thinking, as I sat in the car with my parents and my brother on the way to Mount St. Helens, saying to my mom “you can deny that something just happened… but I don’t have great emotional awareness and even I can tell that something just happened.” Putting words into empty space between disjoint understandings seemed to help solve problems. This was more evidence that sharing emotions was an unbounded good thing to do.

Then several months ago, at the end of an emotional conversation I had repeated several times over with my brother, we finished in a place we always finished. When he does A it makes me feel B. He didn’t intend to make me feel B. In this case the subject was Super Smash Brothers Melee, and if that sounds like too childish a thing to get emotional about then just take my word for it that our relationship has a strong mythology built around the game. For many years it was simultaneously the thing that divided us and united us. It was our secret from our parents. It was the only way to get him to spend time with me, and it was the thing that his cool friends all liked. While I played the piano he played Smash, and while the world was happy to accept my talents and praise my practice, fewer people offered positive words about playing Smash. There were bibles and gods. There was crying. I told Mark when he phrases his feedback in a certain way it makes me feel condescended to and it makes me question whether he cares about me and it makes me not have fun. He didn’t intend to make me feel any of that. It’s a game, there’s no point if it’s not fun. So how does this end? Does he need to apologize for making me feel a certain way? Do I need to apologize for feeling a certain way? That would violate the principle that we don’t punish each other for having feelings. But I caught myself in the middle of the automatic thought process, “why did I share those feelings in the first place when I knew it was just going to end here?” “Because sharing feelings fixes problems.” I caught myself and realized that there was a second, more shameful reason I had shared my feelings. Part of me wanted him to feel guilty for making me feel bad. Wanted to cry and show off the pain I was going through so that he would change into something that wouldn’t cause me this pain. (A classic younger sibling tactic.) I had almost glossed over it because of how easy it was to use my practiced justification and deny responsibility. And then I remembered that we don’t control what we feel but we do control how we act. What I felt in that moment was fear that Mark didn’t care about me, and a need to be assured that he does care. So I made a decision to share the feeling. And if you had accused me of purposely trying to shame him in that moment I would have denied it, but because this was me, myself, realizing my mistake and not somebody else pointing it out I was able to accept the truth – part of my decision to share my feelings was because I knew it would lead to getting the validation that I wanted.

In that moment I realized all at once that the sharing of feelings might be an innocent and noble goal, but it can also have an ulterior motive. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share things that might make others ashamed though. I think the benefit of having a policy of sharing is that it leads to communication. It just means that when we ask ourselves why we felt compelled to share certain emotions with predictable consequences, we should be honest and admit when a little bit of the choice was driven by that secret agenda.

In this same way I do think that Hartley’s piece was meant to have emotional aspects too. I said earlier that I see it as a piece with a thesis and not just personal expression, so maybe I need to backtrack and admit that it’s actually a little of both. I still think it would be dishonest and ill-conceived to dismiss the criticism by saying “it’s not meant to be a rigorous argument,” but when someone has that response I don’t see it as malicious motte-and-bailey-ing. What I see is that although the argument isn’t perfect, the emotional arc of the piece is still really compelling and relatable to this person. This has value, and its not entirely separate from the value we get from carefully considering our viewpoints. As Otium points out,

Splashing around in the Emotion Sandbox often means saying things you don’t really mean, and when people take you literally, you’re deceiving them. Truthful people are also reluctant to jump into the Emotion Sandbox with you, because they want to maintain their own intellectual integrity.

I’m a little bit deficient in emotional awareness. In college I made it my goal to address this and a lot of my choices started involving my own and other people’s feelings. But I don’t want to disavow my natural tendency to be thoughtful about expressing emotions. Hartley does a good job telling an emotional story, and a pretty good job giving a carefully considered argument. Maybe another version of me would have defended it from criticism that exact same way. Ideally I think we should take the experiential knowledge the story imparts while simultaneously asking what it says the truth is. Then I hope that my responses convey a little experiential knowledge too, and get us all even closer to the truth.