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“Why it’s time to put our smiles on strike”: Lucy Mangan on taking a break from emotional labour

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I met a friend for a drink last night – I rarely see her because she does something high-powered in finance and has a job title that includes the words “vice president” AND “team leader”. She looked knackered. “Singapore, Belgium, New York and Chicago in the last fortnight,” she said. “Didn’t get to bed before two any night. I can’t even remember why I went to Belgium. By mistake?” “Cor!” I said, because if I go to the big Tesco it’s an event I talk about for days. “Cor!” “But,” she said, knocking back her wine and fixing me suddenly with a hunted stare, “that’s not what really tires me out.” “No?” I replied. “What is it, then?”

“It is,” she went on, pouring herself another glass of Chateau de She’s Definitely Paying, “all the f***ing chat.”

What she meant, further conversation clarified, was all the stuff she did that her male counterparts didn’t have to bother with. Phrasing emails politely. Enquiring after everyone’s weekends/health/children. Arranging festive dos. Smoothing internal frictions. Greeting everyone who dropped by her office with a smile and giving them a few minutes no matter how busy she was. And doing the odd coffee run or batch of photocopying “because I still have to been seen not to be ‘getting above myself’”. 

There is a name for this requirement that we not only do our jobs as contracted but do them with charm and grace and make everyone around us feel better. It’s called emotional labour and all women do a disproportionate share of it while also serving their employers’ bottom lines. 

Obviously, you have a duty if you are working with people and if you have any pretention at all to being a reasonably civilised human being, to be pleasant, not offend and not go out of your way to make life in the office any worse than it needs to be. But emotional labour is the stuff – outlined above – that goes beyond that and which saps the time and energy that you could and should be devoting to your own daily tasks, projects and, cumulatively therefore, to your career.

And emotional labour – expected yet unpaid and unappreciated – is not just performed in the workplace. Even more of it is extracted at home. 

One of the few upsides of being a holiday/sick/maternity payless freelance writer is that I work alone in my study and nobody demands that I smile as I type or remember anything other than what time I’m supposed to file 800 words and to whom. But as soon as I close my laptop and return to the family fray… Well, in one short 20 minute stretch yesterday evening I did the following:

1. Pointed to the three different objects lying in plain sight that my husband “couldn’t find anywhere”. 

2. Reasoned my way to the correct location of three more by replaying earlier events, to which we were both party, in my mind. 

3. Arranged half a dozen play dates for my son, which I will also supervise – hopefully while my husband attends How To Look For Things classes – because he has been looking forlorn lately.

4. Wrapped a present for a mutual friend as she’s having a bad time.

5. Invited others for dinner because we owe them.

And, although I didn’t smile or make nice while I did it, this counts too. For – and against – all of us. Time, I think perhaps, to go on a little strike. Down tending tools. Stop smiling supportively. See if that gets the job done.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder

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