As a graduate student at Berkeley some years later, I was excited by the writings of C. Wright Mills, especially his chapter in White Collar called “The Great Salesroom,” which I read and reread, I see now, in search of answers to those abiding questions. Mills argued that when we “sell our personality” in the course of selling goods or services we engage in a seriously self-estranging process, one that is increasingly common among workers in advanced capitalist systems. This had the ring of truth, but something was missing. 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.
The flight attendant does physical labor when she pushes heavy meal carts through the aisles, and she does mental work when she prepares for and actually organizes emergency landings and evacuations. But in the course of doing this physical and mental labor, she is also doing something more, something I define as emotional labor. This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others—in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. 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.
For the flight attendant, the smiles are a part of her work, a part that requires her to coordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless. To show that the enjoyment takes effort is to do the job poorly. Similarly, part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labor would show in an unseemly way, and the product — passenger contentment — would be damaged.
The flight attendant and the bill collector, the toe and the heel of capitalism, illustrate two extremes of occupational demand on feeling.
I use the term emotional labor to mean 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. I use the synonymous terms emotion work or emotion management to refer to these same acts done in a private context where they have use value.
The professional actress has a modest say over how the stage is assembled, the props selected, and the other characters positioned, as well as a say over her own presence in the play. This is also true in private life. In both cases the person is the locus of the acting process. But something more operates when institutions are involved, for within institutions various elements of acting are taken away from the individual and replaced by institutional mechanisms. The locus of acting, of emotion management, moves up to the level of the institution. Many people and objects, arranged according to institutional rule and custom, together accomplish the act.
Any institution with a bit of hierarchy in it must suppress democracy to some extent and thus must find ways to suppress envy and resentment at the bottom. Often this is done by enforcing a hierarchy of secrets. The customary rule of secrecy about pay is a case in point: those at the bottom are almost never allowed to know how much money those at the top get each month, nor, to the fullest extent, what privileges they enjoy. Also kept secret are deliberations that determine when and to what level an individual is likely to rise or fall within the organization.
Other claims may be presented in the guise of questions, as in “Aren’t you just thrilled about Evelyn’s news?” Such a question may actually be meant and understood as a claim, a statement of what another expects. Such questions as “Hey, isn’t this fantastic music?” or “Isn’t this an incredible party?” remind us of what the world expects of the heart.
Parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and best friends expect to have more freedom from feeling rules and less need for emotion work; in reality, however, the subterranean work of placing an acceptable inner face on ambivalence is actually all the more crucial for them. In fact, the deeper the bond, the more emotion work, and the more unconscious we are of it.
The claim to control over a worker’s physical appearance was backed by continuous reference to the need to be “professional.” In its original sense, a profession is an occupational grouping that has sole authority to recruit, train, and supervise its own members. Historically, only medicine, law, and the academic disciplines have fit this description. Certainly flight attendants do not yet fit it. Like workers in many other occupations, they call themselves “professional” because they have mastered a body of knowledge and want respect for that. Companies also use “professional” to refer to this knowledge, but they refer to something else as well. For them a “professional” flight attendant is one who has completely accepted the rules of standardization. The flight attendant who most nearly meets the appearance code ideal is therefore “the most professional” in this regard.
In demonstrating how to deal with insistent smokers, with persons boarding the wrong plane, and with passengers who are sick or flirtatious or otherwise troublesome, a trainer held up a card that said “Relax and smile.” By standing aside and laughing at the “relax and smile” training, trainers parried student resistance to it. They said, in effect, “It’s incredible how much we have to smile, but there it is. We know that, but we’re still doing it, and you should too.”
It should be noted that although the social worker, the day-care provider, the doctor, and the lawyer have personal contact and try to affect the emotional states of others, they do not work with an emotion supervisor immediately on hand. Rather, they supervise their own emotional labor by considering informal professional norms and client expectations. So their jobs, like many others, fill only two of our three criteria.
There are jobs at every socioeconomic level that place emotional burdens on the worker, but these burdens may have little to do with the performance of emotional labor. Among the lower classes, where work is often deskilled and boring and the work process beyond the worker’s control, the emotional task is often to suppress feelings of frustration, anger, or fear—and often to suppress feelings of any sort. This can be a terrible burden, but it is not in itself emotional labor.
To sum up, jobs that place a burden on feelings are common in all classes, which is one reason why work is defined as work and not play. But emotional labor occurs only in jobs that require personal contact with the public, the production of a state of mind in others, and (except in the true professions) the monitoring of emotional labor by supervisors. There are probably fewer jobs of this sort—which call for a real transmutation of emotional life—in the lower and working classes. (The Park Avenue hotel doorman, the chambermaid in an upper-class hotel that serves a stable clientele, and the prostitute would be among the few exceptions.) The great majority of emotional laborers have jobs that place them in the middle class.
The emotion work of enhancing the status and well-being of others is a form of what Ivan Illich has called “shadow labor,” an unseen effort, which, like housework, does not quite count as labor but is nevertheless crucial to getting other things done. As with doing housework well, the trick is to erase any evidence of effort, to offer only the clean house and the welcoming smile.