October 02, 2008

Feeling and Display Rules of Emotion

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When most of us think of work, we think of things like trading our time for money or maybe doing something physically difficult. It turns out, according to a large body of social psychological literature, that work can also involve emotions. That’s right, what you feel, and how you show it is “work” that is just as much of your life as your job at the local fast food restaurant.

Here’s how it works (pun intended). When we weren’t looking, society made up a bunch of rules about our emotions. Some of these rules, called feeling rules, govern what we’re supposed to feel in a given situation. For example, when you get married or graduate from college, you’re supposed to be happy, and people will be concerned if you’re otherwise. What if your wedding pictures all show you wide-eyed in terror? (Oh, wait, that was me). Other rules, called display rules, regard what emotions you present to others. With these rules, it doesn’t matter what you’re really feeling, you just have to show the right emotions. For example, when I teach, I don’t mind knowing that some of the students are bored out of their skulls, but I don’t want them showing it with loud yawns and constant eye-rolling.

Once you start thinking about it, it’s remarkable how many roles in society require serious emotion work. Most jobs, for example, pay you not just to do the official work, but they also pay you to do it with the right emotions. A classic example is being a physician. Part of being a doctor is poking, prodding, cutting, and doing all sorts of things to people that is very uncomfortable. In doing it, doctors have to maintain an emotionally-neutral, professional demeanor. What if the doctor is doing something that’s very uncomfortable for you, and they start laughing. Or, maybe they say “oh gross.” My guess is that doctor will start losing patients really quickly.

Likewise, in another example, a study of flight attendants found that they were explicitly trained in the emotions they are supposed to show to airline passengers. Despite being jammed in with hundreds of cranky people, packed together for hours with the same recycled air (you can tell I’m not a big fan of commercial airlines), flight attendants are supposed to be pleasant and cheerful. That’s their job, to smile with each passenger’s request, and if they can’t do the emotions well enough, they might be fired.

An event last summer illustrates the power of emotion work, as it defined an international news story. In Southern Italy, two cousins, aged 12 and 13, went for a swim. They got caught up in a dangerous riptide, and they drowned. This was a tragedy, as any death of a child is, but what made it newsworthy was clip_image002the reaction of people on the beach. When the bodies were brought ashore, they covered them with a blanket, with the girls’ feet sticking out, waiting for the girls’ family and authorities. At first a crowd gathered around, but after not too long, the crowd dispersed and went back to their activities—sun bathing, talking on their cell-phones, having lunch and frolicking in the water—all this just a few meters away from the bodies. Eventually police officers carried away the girls’ bodies on stretchers, walking past sun bathers enjoying the nice day.

There are strong emotion rules in a situation like this. When young people are harmed, we are supposed to feel sadness, even grief. This is a feeling rule. At the very least, we’re to show proper respect and be solemn, a display rule. What we’re not supposed to do, however, is to just go about our business. The crowd violated these rules, and even though it caused no material or physical harm, their perceived indifference caused an international outcry. “The incident also attracted condemnation from the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Crecenzio Seppe. ‘Indifference is not an emotion for human beings,’ Seppe wrote in his parish blog. ‘To turn the other way or to mind your own business can sometimes be more devastating than the events that occur.’”

To complicate matters, the girls were Roma (formerly termed “gypsies”) and the surrounding beach-goers were Italian. There is considerably tension between the Italian authorities and the Roma minority, with the authorities accusing the Roma of increasing levels of street crime, and the Roma charging discrimination. The situation of these two girls, and the crowd’s reaction, exacerbated these tensions. 

This event, and the furor it caused, illustrates the power of emotion rules. Society holds us accountable not just for what we say and do, but for how we feel as well.


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I think this was a very interesting article. It brought up a ot of good points. I can't believe the people would act so careless when they have two dead bodies just laying on the beach. I got out of the article that people need to take care of their emotions, and be careful of how they are revealing them.

Also it interested me because we are talking about the Code of Ethics in our sociolgy class. I think that our emotions are sort of a process and have limits, just like the code.

This can’t be the first time this has happened. It is definitely a large scale occurrence, but on a smaller scale it happens every day. Terrible things happen to people all the time and others mostly always turn their head. Sometimes showing emotional display can cause trouble for someone reacting, so often it is easier for them to turn their head. Society is so complex; there are so many justifications for not displaying the proper emotion.
So it seems, society has taken this episode and examined it on a large scale. We could assume that the people on the beach ignored the girls because everyone else around them did, that is one justification of many, but I bet this group of people may have received a negative label from this incident. Society as a whole may most likely looked at this incident and wondered why we act so “un-human” at times. The fact is that the world is so complex, how can we judge this scene so quickly.
I think this is where we have to get our hands dirty and really worked hard to see what lies beneath the surface. I would be very interested to see the results of a tedious and small scale examination of this incident. What is happening in each one of these bystander’s lives. There could be some bizarre connection to these reactions that we could have completely overlooked when labeling and judging these people.
I guess what I am trying to say is that we may have only scratched the surface of this story and yes, I want to believe in a worldly society where everyone is treated equally but again society is so complex, and in order to deeply understand these events we are going to need flawless, grounded evidence.

That is just another way to look at the situation.

Emotions are deffinitly a huge part of the role you take within your job and life. If you have the wrong attitude toward something, it will not only affect you, but the people around you. I cannot believe that people would just pretend nothing was going on when there were two dead people laying on the beach. Not only did they make themselves look extremely bad, but they represent their society also.

What happens if a person is unable to feel the emotion expected? Doubly so if they are also less than usually capable of disguising their emotions? The result is doubtless going to be Kafkaesque, or totalitarian even - people are being judged based on something they can't help (having the "wrong" emotional setup), which is very similar to disability discrimination for physical attributes one can't help. I think this may be central to understanding forms of disability discrimination against neurodiverse and psychologically different people.

I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing. I mean the Norms that were established in our society are supposed to also help us. Courtesy is a good example of that.

Thus far no one has said what the beach crowd was supposed to do. Sit in a circle around the bodies 'til the responders arrive? I can see one person volunteering or being assigned this role, just to make sure the bodies aren't harmed during the wait, but everyone halting their activities isn't going to change the outcome or help anyone, and it's not doing any harm? I realize it "looked bad", but rationally I can't find a problem with it.

I'm taking a sociology class at the moment and I've learned that sociologists also have to keep their emotions in check when conducting an experiment. It's important to remain emotionally separated from what is going on to keep the results and conclusions as accurate as possible. I find it interesting that emotions play such a key role in a lot of occupations from being a waitress to a sociologist.

Emotions imply by default free expressions of our feelings. Your perspective of seeing them in terms of "rules" is interesting, but social pressure is scary to think of...

Leaving the beach would be a better idea. I couldn’t finish a meal if someone was dead near by so I wouldn’t be able to finish my time on the beach enjoying the day with 2 dead bodies near by. Those girls probably used the rip tide as a place of refuge from dirty looks from the locals then met their fate of being unwanted.

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