April 26, 2018

Learning to Perform Emotional Labor

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Think about all of the things you learn as students that have nothing to do with the actual content of your classes: you learn to meet deadlines, proper classroom decorum, how to navigate a large bureaucracy, and create social ties with peers, among other things. Sociologists call this education’s hidden curriculum, or unintended lessons, many of which are quite valuable to your future career—and to your life overall.

Learning to perform emotional labor is part of the hidden curriculum. What exactly is emotional labor? It happens when we work to control our emotions in order to fit the requirements of a job. Emotional labor is part of any job that involves interacting with others, and is important to consider when pondering your own current or future career choices.

We often face challenges that require us to carefully control our emotions; some of us never learn how to do this, or that we even should manage our emotional responses. Those who do might find that this makes our success on the job or in relationships with others smoother. But where do we learn how to perform emotional labor?

School is one of the first places we learn how to manage our emotions: as young children, we (hopefully) learn not to hit or otherwise assault our classmates when we are upset with them, and ideally not to say things that are hurtful to others.

Advancing in the educational system and then in the workplace often depends on learning to manage emotions; let’s think of all of the opportunities we get to practice.

  1. Managing stress: most students experience school-related stress by high school if not sooner. This comes from juggling multiple classes and assignments, and trying to navigate the expectations of many instructors. Getting a handle on stress (through planning ahead, getting help when needed, getting sleep and other strategies) are highly valuable skills in the workplace. Have roommate issues or friends that are less supportive than you would expect? These kinds of challenges present themselves in other forms throughout our lives.

Learning to manage your time and minimize unnecessary stress is one tactic, as is finding a healthy outlet to help manage stress is another. Asking for extensions, as many students do when they feel stress, is not always going to work as a student or an employee.

  1. Classroom discussions: have you been part of a classroom discussion when something someone said made you angry or offended you? This is a common experience students have in classes on controversial issues, or even seemingly non-controversial topics. How do you handle this experience, especially if you feel like someone is attacking something you said?

These kinds of experiences challenge us to think about ways to make our points gracefully when possible, and to learn to let go of comments that we feel are brusque or rude. As a college student, I felt blindsided when this happened once, particularly because the instructor did not intervene when a student used insults to describe a presentation I just completed. I just shut down at the time, seething in anger, and wished I could come up with an appropriate and professional response. The professor said nothing about this comment, which I now know was a failure on his behalf.

If I had to do it over again, I might have let the professor know after class that the comment the student made felt hurtful, and that I wished that there might have been a way steer the conversation into a more productive tone. Using the phrase “I wish” helps refocus a negative event into a positive desired outcome.

  1. Disappointments: whether it is a grade on a paper or exam, if you are a student long enough, you will have the chance to feel disappointed and learn how to react to it. After returning papers, I give students a sample “script” of how they might seek assistance by encouraging them to focus on learning what they might do better, rather than simply venting their sadness or anger about a grade, or demand that their grade be increased.

Learning to deal with disappointment professionally is another important job skill: maybe someone else gets that position you were hoping to land, or you aren’t put up for a promotion although you feel like you deserve it. Maybe your supervisor tells you to redo a report that you spent days and long nights working on—all of these experiences parallel being a student.

Not all faculty and staff have mastered the art of emotional labor either. Just like my professor who let a rude comment slip by in a class discussion, we are all working to manage our emotions as part of our job. We get plenty of opportunities for practice—that lecture that no one seems interested in listening to, the challenge of guiding a discussion that suddenly turns angry—all present unique opportunities to hone our emotional labor skills.

How else does being a student prepare you to perform emotional labor?

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