“Emotional Labor” Pains – Laughing through the Contractions

Emotional Labor is a topic I found to be endlessly fascinating in my Industrial & Organizational Psychology studies during grad school, and it is a concept that has stuck with me ever since… I wanted a chance to pass on this idea to you, in the hope that it may provide some context or inspiration for you in your daily life.

Emotional Labor. It sounds…painful.

Thankfully for you women readers out there, these are labor pains we men share with you. Interestingly, there are a LOT of articles about women and emotional labor, and how they experience EL much more than men, but for the purposes of this article, we will discuss this as a gender-neutral epidemic. Because it truly is, when you understand WHAT Emotional Labor is, and how it affects each of us.

To best explain, imagine that we all experience three different types of labor: Physical, Cognitive, and Emotional.

Physical and cognitive labor is pretty easy to understand: lifting weights and math come immediately to mind. When we lift too many weights, we can become physically exhausted. If we spend too much time trying to reason out a math problem, or a challenge we have at work, we can become mentally exhausted.

Emotional labor is just as easy to understand, but we rarely give it its own consideration.

Simply put, emotional labor is the display of expected emotions that may be discordant to your real emotions. Another way to think about it is the effort we expend to present expected emotions versus authentic emotions. If anyone reading this has ever worked in any kind of customer service industry, this should be easy to understand:

“Have you ever had a day where you were repeatedly mistreated by a customer?
    No, of course not.
And not one of us was able to really tell the customer what we wanted to, right?
At the end of your shift, you felt wrung-out, pooped, exhausted?
THAT is Emotional Labor.”

The service-industry examples are endless (and the list is infinite in other professions as well!), but the general idea is that any time we need to suppress our real emotions, it takes an emotional toll in the form of emotional labor. It is caused by the dissonance between our natural reactions in conflict with what polite society or work strictures dictate we should react. We all experience this to one degree or another, and it is exhausting!

But here is the good news! We can get better at it!

That’s right, emotional labor skills can be developed; just like physical training can help with physical skills or a tutor can help with math skills, there are things we can do to make our emotional work life less exhausting. Before we talk about how to beat it, we first have to better understand it. We need to understand the three different sides of emotional acting: surface acting, deep acting, and genuine acting.

Surface Acting

Faking it.

It is as easy as that. Surface acting is just what it sounds like, a very shallow form of overcoming that emotional discordance. This type of acting takes many forms and again has an endless amount of examples (the polite smile you put on your YOUR face when you’d really like to rip THEIR face off, apologizing for something completely out of your control, etc.) Surface acting is also the most exhausting form of emotional labor because it requires the biggest leap to bridge the

“how I really want to respond,” and
“how my workplace or surroundings tell me I have to respond.”

I can venture to guess that everyone reading this can identify with this type of acting, because; were we to lack this ability to surface act, society itself would crumble. I shudder to think of what my world would look like if I and everyone around me just said exactly what they (or I) were thinking! The HORROR! We NEED surface acting in our lives, we just need to do less of the surface acting and become better at deep acting, which is much less exhausting.

Deep Acting

Better faking it. Okay, that is a little harder to understand.

It is probably easiest to think of deep acting as “surface acting with empathy.” Deep acting involves being able to connect with, even on a small level, the person who we are acting towards. By doing this, you are able to still respond properly, but you will expend FAR less in labor cost.

To provide an example, let me set the stage:

Imagine you are at a hotel reception desk, answering customer service concerns. Someone approaches you and begins yelling at you and berating you for the poor quality of the free wi-fi in the hotel. By all accounts, they are holding you personally responsible for their inability to connect.




Surface Acting:

(smiling politely) “Sir, I am sorry you are experiencing issues. You are absolutely right, we should do better. Could you fill out a comment card, please?” Aaaand, you move on.

But, you weren’t really sorry, nor did you really think that his poor signal was your fault. Do this 10, 25, 50 times in a day, and you are exhausted (and probably ready to snap!)

The point is, you were not making any kind of real connection with the customer. You were not providing bad customer service, you just provided a very patented answer and moved on.

Deep Acting:

Same scenario, but before you respond, you spend a micro-second putting yourself into his or her imagined place. Try to justify their displeasure to yourself, even just a little. Imagine that this person is waiting for an important document to get emailed, or that there is a video training that the person is trying to connect to, but the poor wi-fi signal is preventing it. By doing this, your response is now:

“Wow, I am so sorry for that, that can be so frustrating! I know we were having connection issues earlier, and I was told they would be connected again soon. If it helps, we have a business center that has a DSL connection, or if you need the signal for a mobile device, there is a Satrbucks with a good signal just around the corner, let me draw you a map.”

The difference can be subtle, but there definitely IS a difference. By applying a bit of empathy to the situation, you are able to connect with the person. No matter how unpleasant they are. The customer leaving the above encounter feels like they were listened to. And you leave the encounter a lot less drained!

How do I become a better deep actor?

There is no one simple solution to developing better emotional labor skills. Experience will help to develop those skills, but just doing something for a long time does not mean certain success.

Having a professional coach (shameless plug) to work with can help a person learn different ways to approach, reason, and overcome different life challenges, and I often work with people who are dissatisfied in their job. When we start to delve into the WHY of their dissatisfaction, a common theme is that they don’t enjoy the parts of the job that require emotional labor skills to be used, or they have not developed the right acting skills. Once we start working on changing the way we think about different situations and applying empathy and perspective to the other person’s way of thinking, a light goes off! Deep acting becomes much easier!

Creating more happiness in your work environment is my best solution to fostering better use of emotional labor. See my other posts about the power of laughter and workplace happiness, but the overall point is simple. Happier people have an easier time making better personal connections. When we laugh with others (be it coworkers, customers, or random folk off the street) we can connect with them more easily.  But the power of laughter does not end there. Just by laughing more and being a happier individual, we are able to communicate better, connect more deeply, and provide a better customer experience.

If these ideas of happiness, emotional labor, surface acting/deep acting, or laughter training interest you, contact me. The best way to do that is to email me at mike@laughtership.net. I provide one-on-one coaching and training, and I also work with entire organizations to help solve their challenges as well. I would love the opportunity to talk to you!

I am hosting a FREE online workshop of this very topic on Wednesday, March 14th, at 4:00p.m. (Alaska Standard Time, 7:00p.m. CST) This is an interactive discussion of everything discussed here, plus questions or additions that people on the call contribute. Email me if you want to join the call!





Michael “Mr. Mirth” Bork is a positive leadership development specialist, coach, and public speaker. He has a Master’s Degree in Industrial & Organizational Psychology, and is a Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher. He specializes in evidence-based positive psychology, stress maintenance, and workplace happiness. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and travels all over the world, fulfilling his mission of “Spreading Mirth on Earth!”

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