Emotional labour is an important term – but I mostly use it to get out of things | Emma Brockes

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Like a lot of people, for many years I said yes to things I didn’t want to do. This was a combination of conditioning – it pays to be “nice” – vague fear of missing out and basic conflict avoidance. Without giving it much thought, it seemed to me there was no easy way to turn things down without causing offence or running against the grain of my own personality. Hostage negotiators and people in business presumably had workarounds for this inhibition, but whatever their tactics, they weren’t available to the rest of us. All we had, growing up, was the maxim “Just say no” – a slogan so useless it became a universally recognised and decades-long joke.

A lot has changed since then. In the past 10 years, a language has developed, mainly from social justice and feminist movements, but also from academia, to describe latterly opaque states of discomfort and the right we have to resist them.

Chief among these are terms reaching to describe the more intangible end of labour inequality. If the term “sexism” was popularised in the late 1960s to frame basic double standards between men and women, modern iterations seek out more subtle disparities. Years before the phrase “mental load” took off, I recall a friend describing, via thousands of words, how her husband was “very good” at doing 50% of the childcare, while relying wholly on her as his line manager. (The example she used has stayed with me: he would, she said, “gladly” take the kids to a birthday party at the weekend, but it wouldn’t occur to him in a million years that they had to turn up with gifts, which needed buying and wrapping.)

The phrases that evolved to address this imbalance are good, and they work. In fact, “mental load” and its adjacent term, “emotional labour”, work so well, they have been absorbed into common usage and promptly lost much of their original meaning. Emotional labour was, apparently, coined in the 1980s in academia to describe service industry jobs requiring the faking of a cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t mean that now. With trigger-happy application, you can bolt that phrase on to almost any situation, conversation or obligation you’d rather not be involved in, and back out feeling gloriously wronged.

I say this without judgment. I do it all the time. My favourite, and by far the most useful, of these newish locutions is the phrase: “I’m not comfortable with that.” It’s just brilliant. It can get you out of almost anything. It hints at some unspeakable trigger event, and as such forestalls most pushback. It also has in its favour that particularly American brand of officiousness that evokes my other favourite word, “boundaries”. One can ditch disagreeable people left, right and centre these days via use of the word “boundaries” while escaping any feelings of guilt. I am not being mean: I am merely protecting myself from your inadequate boundaries.

It’s clear that this get-out-of-jail-free card is not how the language was intended to be used, although I’m inclined to think – possibly delusionally – that even in diluted form, the net result is still good. Being able to politely back out of something without tying yourself in knots is useful, particularly for women socialised to comply. Feeling less responsible for other adults’ unruly emotions is a good thing, too. Common use of these terms is also an expression of individualistic self-advancement that has little or nothing to do with the power imbalance the language was created to address. Real-world application of academic language is notoriously sloppy, and can lead to bizarre inversions; this is no different.

And yet, once you start, it is almost impossible to stop. You don’t even have to say the words, you just have to think them. A small example that I’m still trying to process. A while ago, I received a very long and angry email from a woman who accused me of slighting her. The offending interaction had occurred two years earlier, and while her email seemed unreasonable, she was clearly upset and I was, in the first instance, alarmed. I’m not obliged to engage with everyone who demands it; on the other hand, the distress was real, and perhaps I could assuage it if I spent enough time on the reply. Dithering, I forwarded the whole thing to a friend, who took one look at it and made a summary judgment. “She’s asking you to do emotional labour,” he said, and bingo: I was off the hook. Not only off the hook, but righteously indignant: I’m not replying; she’s a vampire; case closed.