Sociologist Arlie Hochschild first conceptualised this term ‘emotional labor’ way back in 1983. It refers to the work of managing one’s own emotions – by evoking or suppressing feelings – that was required by certain professions. People who toil through emotional labour are mainly in the service industry such as flight attendants, hospitality staff, teachers, or nurses – those who are expected to smile and be friendly and calm in the midst of stressful or nasty situations.

However, in recent years, people who use this concept have started expanding the meaning of it to a point that made no sense to the original concept. This notion that a definition starts to include more cases beyond what was initially conceptualised is called a ‘concept creep’. The original idea of emotional labor was something that happened at the workplace but has now shifted to homes. Women are said to be doing emotional labor because they are taking on the unpaid work of maintaining the household chores and relationships. Hochschild remarked that it has become an “overextension” and “over-applied”.

Read the full article on The Atlantic: The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’


It is necessary to have clarity of the context that we are applying a concept to, according to Hochschild. Before we classify and lament about any form of additional work delegated to women to be emotional labor, there needs to be an element of anxiety or fear to the obligatory chores.

While there might be an advantage to broadening the concept to a certain extent, In the concept creep of the term, people are using it to explain how there is inherently more expectations on women to take on the additional roles such as playing the peacemaker, organising social gatherings, and being pleasant to work with. While it is expected of women in the workplace, it is seen as a bonus when men display these behaviors. Such invisible emotional labor can tire out a person, but it can potentially hinder career progression if a female does not perform up to these unsaid expectations.

With regard to the issue of gender equality, understanding this underappreciated work could bring to awareness how men can contribute to these tasks that are usually left to their female counterparts.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. Have you experienced or witnessed emotional labor? What were they?
  2. Do you think it is helpful to expand the previously narrow definition of emotional labor?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘disenchantment’: a feeling of disappointment about someone or something you previously respected or admired
  2. ‘insinuating’: suggesting or hinting (something bad) in an indirect and unpleasant way
  3. ‘alienation’: the state of being estranged

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