Emotional Labor

“You should smile more.  You’re a very pretty girl.”

I snap out of my trance in time to notice the man walking past me.  Did he just tell me to smile?  My skin itches but I can’t blame him.  Smiling is part of my job.

As I mentioned in one of my recent blogs, “the Graduate Life,” I hostess at the local pub & grill.  This means that I’m the first face that customers see when they walk into the restaurant.  I smile, greet them, and maybe have a little chat to help them feel comfortable and welcome.  I also seat them at their table.  My coworkers – the waitresses and bartenders – also smile and maintain an amiable attitude as they take orders and tend to their customers’ needs.

It’s alright.  It’s part of the job description.  Nobody wants to go to a restaurant with a crabby staff.

But, of course, sometimes we feel crabby.  I’ve had a few shifts where it’s felt like a challenge to smile and act emotionally at ease.  Restaurant work involves emotional labor, or “the expectation that a worker should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings in order to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job.”*  I see that in myself and in the people who work with me at the restaurant, most of whom are parents and have second jobs.  I don’t know how they do it.  They enter into their zone even when they’re having a bad day.


Most times, I find myself manipulating my emotions when I go to church.  I actually wrote about it in another blog post, “Hungover at Church,” defending the idea that it’s okay to put on a happy face and distance yourself from the negative emotions that otherwise dominated you outside of church.  I argued that it’s still authentic.

I still believe that but reading a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me notice an important distinction – a distinction between two kinds of pretending: “There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing… But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing.”  Lewis argues that “very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”**

It sounds cruel, as though it supports the idea of ignoring ‘your authentic, inner self’ and crafting ‘your put-on, outer self.’  But then again, “what we feel [on the inside] is just what we show to ourselves,”*** in the same way that what we feel on the outside is what we show to others.

What if acting emotionally at ease makes us emotionally at ease?  Or better yet, by acting emotionally at ease, we ARE emotionally at ease?  What if what we are is what we perform?

This is what I have found to be the most conflicting aspect of feeling sad or frustrated.  In one sense, there’s value in opening up and reflecting on how you feel.  In another sense, it might be more effective to skip the, as my dad would call it, ‘moping,’ and, well, basically, suck it up.

Or, in better words, instead of ignoring your emotional state, maybe just internally acknowledge its existence while also moving on and keeping it from affecting the way you appear and interact with other people.  It’s a challenge, it’s like labor, but whenever I do it, I find that it works.  I force a smile at the beginning of work and, by the time it’s evening, I’m smiling without thinking about it.  The ‘pretence’ leads to the reality.

Photo by Yury Kim

When it comes to church, I don’t always feel like praying, I don’t have it in me, but forcing myself to pray makes more of a difference than not praying.  As theologian D.A. Carson says, “Pray until you pray” so that we can “get past the feeling of formalism and unreality.”****

So I smile, until I actually smile, with the eyes.



*Hackman, Rose. “‘Women Are Just Better at This Stuff’: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s next Frontier?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

**Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), pg. 188

*** Parkinson, Brian, Ideas and Realities of Emotion, (New York: Routledge, 1995), pg. 7

****Carson, D.A., A Call to Spiritual Reformation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1992), pg. 36

4 thoughts on “Emotional Labor

  1. Yet another interesting post …

    Actually, you can blame him … or anyone … who says “You should smile more”; it’s a form of harassment. No stranger should be handing out unsolicited advice on how they think you can improve your appearance … as if your existence is for their male gaze.

    The concept of the 2 selves … I find quite interesting. The self we show … the mask …and the inner self. Probably always a theme in literature, but now with social media perhaps even more relevant. And the 2 selves …as you already see …are not seperate. They interact and influence each other.

    Famous poem that comes to mind in this area …. by Mark Strand ,,,USA Poet Laureate titled, “The Tunnel”.


    1. Thank you for standing up for me, Mike! Yes, it was a rather shocking comment.
      I studied literature and emotion at uni and I think you would have found it intriguing. We read a quote by Sara Ahmed that said, “emotions create the very effect of an inside and an outside.” My teacher, the beloved Karen Schaller, asked us to think about the implications of that quote and we realized that, if it’s true, then the line between “the inside” and “the outside” does not exist! You can’t create the effect of something if it already exists. So the 2 selves is “a thing” because of emotions, but it’s only an illusion. Your belief that they interact and influence each other is more than true! It’s kind of like how our “mental” and our “physical” are not two separate things.
      I need to look up that poem. I love literature about emotions.


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