I Might Be a Language Purist (But There’s Hope for Me)
Written by Laura Oviedo-Guzmán
I don’t know whether it’s clear how much I love language. I do write for a magazine, so I must have a passion for it, right? Yes. And as of mid-December, I have a Linguistics minor to show for it—woo-hoo! Maybe my adoration results from having to figure English out as a native Spanish speaker; maybe it’s because I am very faithful to the meaning of words that people share with me. Either way, I have been fascinated with the ways in which we shift the use of words in our language for as long as I can remember. So, when one of the prompts for my Philosophy of Language (PHIL 3280, if you want to take it) class midterm paper was exactly about this, I felt electrified because I would get to talk about one of my biggest linguistic pet peeves—the term “emotional labour.” Read on to see what makes me feel like the spazztic “Roman’s Revenge” TikTok trend.
When I ponder worries about language meaning, sharing, and use, I think of TikTok. I think of this social media platform because of the curious way creators use language that I, a recent achiever of a Bachelor of Health Sciences, use to describe very specific phenomena. Terms like trauma-bond, gaslighting, anti-social, and emotional labour are employed by TikTok users to refer to experiences that do not truly fit the definition of these terms. My unease does not spring just because they have misappropriated a term; it is further stirred by the fact that the misappropriation and misuse of these words are proliferated due to how the algorithm works on this platform. Instead of outing myself as a language purist, I like to use the friction between my lexical knowledge and the vulgar use of these terms to fuel my curiosity about why we morph word-use in this manner. In this text, I will explore how words shift in meaning over time, and the limits to the freedom language users have to shift the meaning of words in a language.
The Emotional Labour of Explaining Emotional Labour
Anxieties about how language changes are not unique to me, my time, or this particular social media site. People have attributed the plight of language to the use of the word “like” for decades, claiming that people are pulling it into grammatical categories where it does not belong. Some even liken the use of “like” in this context to an epidemic and suggest that a speech pathologist curtail this particular use (Sankin, 2017). While I would not pathologize for the misuse of a term, I want to allow my eyes to roll whenever I hear someone use the term emotional labour when referring to, for example, lending a friend a compassionate ear or asking one’s spouse to wash the dishes. However, I stopped my ocular somersault because I want to be genuinely empathic and curious about a person’s experience.
The term emotional labour was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book Managed Hearts and describes “the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job” (1985). Emotional labour elicits certain feelings in a client, which mediate the company’s success. Common examples of professions that require this ritual are food-industry jobs, healthcare, and childcare.
Thirty years after its inception, the term has been used in feminist discussions about household chores that often go unnoticed, like organizing holiday celebrations. Using the term to denote the exhaustion felt by completing this task and having one’s efforts taken for granted constitutes misuse. The same can be said of using emotional labour to refer to one’s attempts to manage other people’s emotions, like when one spends time cooking and decorating for an event to elicit happiness in others. Employing emotional labour in both of these instances is inappropriate because, in the first example, the discussion is around actions that are strictly considered work. There is no discussion of how the agent is managing their emotions regarding the chores they are doing. In the second example, the discussion is about managing other people’s emotions, not one’s own, which is not what emotional labour constitutes.
The extension of the term emotional labour is an example of concept creep. This term refers to the semantic expansion of harm-related topics to include topics which would not have been originally envisaged to be included under that label (Haslam et al., 2021). According to various sources, the concept creep of emotional labour reached its peak in 2018. This is the same year author Gemma Hartley published Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, based on her own Harper’s Bazaar article from the previous year in which she mistakenly labels things that really fall under mental or physical work, like using her encyclopedic knowledge of her children’s school dietary lunch guidelines to make their food, as emotional labour. Based on my observations on TikTok and discussions with disgruntled Sociology majors in 2022, we are still in the rising action portion of concept creep for this term.
This instance of concept creep/inappropriate semantic expansion is primarily due to a lack of linguistic due diligence on the language user’s part. In thinking of the process involved in the re-assignment of meaning concerning the term emotional labour, I picture an individual rightfully frustrated by the asymmetrical split of household chores, eager to share their experiences with others who might relate or offer a solution. Most people do not conceptualize domestic work as literal labour, likely because it is unremunerated and therefore seen as worth less than paid work. I think this idea, coupled with the wrongful equivalence that domestic and relational matters (outside of the office) are necessarily “emotional,” is what led some people to couple the words “emotional” and “labour” to describe household management and the burden it disproportionately places on women. Emotional labour would go on to describe the fatigue felt by having people disclose difficulties and helping them navigate their turmoil. If someone is helping their loved ones with their emotions, then it follows that they are performing labour with emotions… so, emotional labour, right? Essentially, people did not do their research and came up with a shorthand to communicate their frustrations.
I am a staunch supporter of the idea that language exists to serve us, not the opposite. As users of a language with endless creativity, we can create and evolve language to describe our realities. However, the misuse of emotional labour is not an example of this. The misuse of this term, as I have outlined above, is actually a disservice to ourselves because using this term to discuss personal matters makes the discussion more confusing since this term has a pre-established meaning. Additionally, emotional labour is used as a catch-all term to discuss the burden of doing things outside of a paid role, from household management to connecting with loved ones. The extension of the term was so bad that the sociologist responsible for it was quoted saying she was “horrified” by people’s misuse (Beck, 2018).
While a year of seemingly climactic misuse of emotional labour, 2018 also saw a slew of articles on what emotional labour truly means. One of these articles is an interview between Hochschild, who invented the term, and the senior editor for the Atlantic, Julie Beck. The interviewer asks the sociologist if she is comfortable expanding the term’s definition, adding that “language evolves.” Hochschild responds that she is not comfortable with the overextension of the term because it makes the thinking “a little blurrier” and lacks class perspective when one can cite that “calling a maid to clean the bathtub […] is too burdensome,” constituting emotional labour. Later on in the interview, she says, “[we are] trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with [a] blunt concept.” Hochschild thinks the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas to bring this conversation to different contexts in a helpful way (Beck, 2018).
Someone reading my words might think I am appealing to authority. I am dazzled by Hochschild and firm in my discomfort about the vulgar use of emotional labour because she is a highly decorated sociologist. She said people were misusing her term. I would say I am guilty of this if she had not gone to great lengths to study the phenomena labelled by the term, carefully classified what emotional labour looks like, and subsequently mindfully devised a pairing of words to describe said phenomena. In other words, we can experiment with language and express ourselves how we want. However, there are limits to that freedom because we cannot re-assign meaning to a term that was carefully coined to communicate clearly about a specific issue in our society. Because this term is her brainchild, which came about after rigorous research, it is appropriate and necessary that Hochschild reminds us of the limits to our linguistic freedom where the overextension of emotional labour is concerned. If we are not on the same page, her intervention at least ensures we are reading the same book.
Arlie Russell Hochschild. (1985). The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. University Of California Press.
Beck, J. (2018, November 26). Arlie Hochschild: Housework Isn’t “Emotional Labor.” The Atlantic; The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/11/arlie-hochschild-housework-isnt-emotional-labor/576637/
Boston.com Staff. (2011, July 19). Literally the most misused word. Www.boston.com. https://www.boston.com/culture/lifestyle/2011/07/19/literally-the-most-misused-word/
Definition of LITERALLY. (n.d.). Www.merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally
Hartley, G. (2017, September 27). Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up. Harper’s BAZAAR. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a12063822/emotional-labor-gender-equality/
Haslam, N., Tse, J. S. Y., & De Deyne, S. (2021). Concept Creep and Psychiatrization. Frontiers in Sociology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2021.806147