Emotional Labor: Arlie Hochschild's Definition & Theories

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson defines the concept of emotional labor. You'll learn the basic premises and theories behind it and what sectors of work it largely applies to.

Smiling Cashiers

Here's an interesting thought. How many times have you gone up to a cash register and seen a smiling cashier. Probably almost always, at least in Western economies. How many times have you actually wondered to yourself if this person is truly happy? Maybe you even asked how her day was and she probably told you something more or less positive. Did you ever wonder if she was telling the truth?

There's a good chance that many of those cashiers weren't smiling inside, but they were smiling on the outside and engaged in emotional labor as a result. This lesson is going to go over this concept.

What is Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor is a concept coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her famous book, The Managed Heart (1983).

Emotional labor occurs when employees introduce or suppress emotions in order to portray themselves in a certain light that, in turn, produces a wanted state of mind in another. This process is often shaped by institutions or other social structures.

Let's go back to that cashier example. We'll say our cashier's name is Alice. She was hired by Acme Supermarket two months ago. When she was hired, she was given an employee handbook. This handbook was meticulously designed to ensure smooth operations that would, in the end, keep customers coming back to spend their money at the supermarket.

One of the rules in the employee handbook, designed to that end, is the following (in brief):

''If you're having a bad day, a customer should never be aware of this. Turn a frown upside down and into a smile. Otherwise, customers will perceive their store experience as being highly negative.'' And thus, of course, potentially seek to shop elsewhere.

We live in a society where a lot of people are engaged in highly relational, service-based work - work that requires a lot of socialization with customers and colleagues directly. This kind of work requires a lot of emotional skill and is the basic premise behind emotional labor.


Hochschild developed her theories about emotional labor at a time when concepts surrounding emotion were starting to take serious root in sociology.

Hochschild described two important aspects related to the management of one's emotions (not necessarily related to work):

  • Deep acting, where a person works to place his or her private emotional state into one that is in line with what is socially acceptable for a given situation. That is to say, deep acting changes how you privately feel.
  • Surface acting, where a person puts on a face, essentially, and places his or her outward emotional appearance in line with what is socially expected or acceptable in a certain situation. In other words, surface acting changes your public display of emotion.

These societal norms regarding the experience of emotion are called ''feeling rules.'' Such emotional management is mainly a private act that is part and parcel of our relationship with others, thanks to cultural norms of what is appropriate, or not, with respect to feelings and expressions thereof.

When the management of emotion is influenced by entities in the work-related world, this is termed emotional labor. Particularly, when it comes to emotional labor, it's not just managing one's own feelings in general. It's managing one's own feelings in order to create some sort of emotional state in another person as defined by that work-related entity.

Basically, in service-related industries, people like Alice are expected to manage their emotions to the point where it may very well be a job requirement.


These theories and others Hochschild discussed in her book spurred a great deal of research on the topic. As a result, subsequent researches have expanded the original concepts and theories of emotional labor into many fields.

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