Twitter has been in a frenzy for the last 24 hours over a now-viral tweet thread from feminist wellness educator Melissa A. Fabello that brought the often-misunderstood concept of "emotional labor" screaming back into The Discourse.
Fabello's tweets address asking friends if they have the capacity to assist in times of emotional difficulty and provide a script for people who want to "respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them." The thread received some support and plenty of criticism; all social-media snipes aside, I think we can all generally agree that it's okay and, in fact, often necessary, to prioritize your own needs first if you're dealing with a lot.
What many objected to in Fabello's tweet thread lies not in its advocating for more clearly articulated boundaries, but in its misuse of the term "emotional labor":
To be fair, Fabello is far from the only person to confuse the meaning of "emotional labor." The phrase is often incorrectly taken to mean the outsized or otherwise inappropriate work of being a friend/confidant/partner to someone who doesn't value your time, which is a totally valid issue; it's just not the originally designated definition.
The phrase "emotional labor" was actually coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, and refers to "a situation where the way a person manages his or her emotions is regulated by a work-related entity in order to shape the state of mind of another individual, such as a customer."
"Emotional labor" applies when, say, a restaurant server is told by their manager to "put on a smile" to serve a rude customer—not when a friend feels overloaded by another friend's emotional needs. In a more extreme example, "emotional labor" might be the work an employee is forced to do to swallow their feelings about a racist or sexist comment in the workplace, to avoid alienating coworkers, superiors, or customers.
It's an easy mistake to make, but it's also crucial to know the difference, as the term "emotional labor" gets at the heart of a complex symptom of capitalism wherein workers are made unable to separate their unique, personal feelings from their work lives.
The distinction between Hochschild's definition of "emotional labor" and its common misidentification might seem trivial, but as labor relations in the U.S. appear to be on the decline, it's particularly important not to conflate individual problems with structural ones. In other words, it's okay to need space from emotional demands, but it's also okay to say just that.
Originally Appeared on Vogue