Friday, September 3, 2010

Expressing the Feelings You Don't Feel

The concept has been around for a while. It has been studied in business schools. To my knowledge, it has had less influence on the therapy culture.

Coined by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, it is usually called "emotional labor." Links here and here.

Anyone who is in a service or sales position knows it well. It involves the fact that your job will require you to express feelings that you do not have.

When a client walks into a sales office the salesman must express some degree of happiness to see the person, whether he feels it or not. When a patient is in the hospital he expects the nurse to show some sympathy and concern, whether she feels it or not.

Of course, when you encounter a grumpy salesperson, you are not really concerned with whether or not he really feels what he is expressing. You are much more concerned with how well or poorly he is going to help you with your purchases.

As for the nurse, you certainly do not want your nurse to treat you with contempt or condescension, but you are more concerned is that she provides good nursing service to you. Since you barely know her, you are not all that concerned with how much she does or does not care about your health. You are more likely to overlook her failure to respond to your call if she is congenial, but the bottom line is that you are more interested in the quality of her care than in whether or not her expressions of emotion are sincere.

Sociologists and economists seem to believe that a goodly part of the business world runs on false expressions of emotion. If you cannot look happy to see your client, you are less likely to make the sale. Failing to respect emotional protocol is a breach of decorum.

The same is true with friends and family. Many times we know that we are obliged to express the right emotions to a friend or family member lest we be taken to be insensitive and boorish.

When your friend is grieving a lost love, you will not take the occasion to express how happy you are that he has broken up with someone so completely unsuited for him.

If this is true, then why are therapists spending so much of their time encouraging people to get in touch with their true feelings and to express them openly and honestly?

Are business transactions an orgy of inauthenticity, practiced best by people who are hypocrites and thespians? When we socialize are we systematically defrauding people by misrepresenting how we really feel?

I am not familiar with the work that has been done on this topic of emotional labor, but I would like to offer some of my thoughts on the topic.

As I was thinking it through, I recalled a rather dense, but exceptionally brilliant book by Saul Kripke: Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition. It is definitely an important book, but it is hardly an elementary exposition.

Following Wittgenstein, Kripke argues that emotions are strictly private matters that do not and can never be fully expressed through a public medium like human language.

When John tells Jim that he is angry, and Jack tells Jill that he is anger... we have no way of knowing whether John and Jack are feeling the same thing.

If John and Jack are both discussing a named individual, whether Barack Obama or George Bush, they will be referring to the same person. Emotions, however, are private and cannot be expressed fully through a social medium.

We cannot know that your anger and mine are the same, and the fact that we both display signs of anger and use words to let you know how angry we are does not mean that our different angers mean the same thing or have the same relevance.

What does this distinction add to our understanding of emotional labor? It tells us, first of all, that the underlying concept of expressing our true feelings is flawed. We often bring them into conversation, but the signs that we use to display them-- whether verbal or nonverbal-- are merely that-- signs, elements of communication designed to make a point about how we are going to behave.

If this is correct, then the concept of emotional labor is flawed by the assumption that we can somehow express emotions that we do feel. By expressing anger, we are not so much expressing an emotion, as showing that we have been offended and by declaring our intention to respond.

If  a man tells a woman that he is in love with her, he is not simply expressing a feeling. In fact, no one really takes a declaration of love as a mere expression of feeling. More normally, we take it as a long term commitment to the other person.

Most people have enough trouble knowing whether they are really in love. How do you expect them to discern someone else's feelings. In the end, what matters is what the expression says about their future actions.

Or look at the issue this way. When you receive a gift you normally send a thank you note. At least, you should, even when you are not exactly thrilled with the gift.

If you follow the thinking of the sociologists, you would believe that in order to send an expressive thank you note you need to take a course in method acting.

Because that would allow you to become (imaginatively) the person who really has the feelings of gratitude that you do not have. Then, you could write a fully expressive thank you note.

But that is patently untrue. Thank you notes are formal rituals. They do not require an excess of feeling. They need not, and probably are best not be filled with poetry.

A good thank you note is clear and articulate, to the point, and not overly banal and cliched. Choosing expressive language is more important than filling the page with lame expressions of deep feeling.

As one who believes that method acting has been the bane of American theater, the last thing I would recommend is getting so completely in character that you trick yourself into believing that your expressions of emotion are genuine, even where you have no real command of language or diction.

British actors have not suffered the influence of method acting, and therefore they have a tendency to express the right emotion without slurring their lines and eating half their words. They allow the script to communicate what it wants to communicate without getting in the way.

Theirs is a better way to learn emotional labor.

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