Unpaid Emotional Labor

The amazing Alex Morgan posted this on Facebook today:

I don’t think there’s any doubt that had this driver’s passenger been a cisgender man, he’d never have dared to pull something like that. But there’s more to this that needs to be unpacked. It’s disturbingly common for men try to get women to smile for them. I get how annoying that is and I agree with Alex (formerly, Sabrina) that it’s unpaid emotional labor. I think that more men need to look at why it happens so often.

I’ll admit that this is something that I used to do sometimes. I used to have real difficulties bearing witness to women’s discomfort, whether it was real or simply my perception of it. Knowing what I do now (and not in any way considering this an excuse), I can see that what was motivating me was the story in my head about what women’s discomfort meant. It had a lot to do with my family of origin and it wasn’t until I took a good look at that and did the work that I needed to do that I stopped wanting to “fix” women’s bad moods. For what it’s worth, I never did that to strangers. And I’d mostly stopped actually trying to get women to smile before I got my shit together, because I’d been told how obnoxious it was. But it wasn’t until I’d healed that part of me that I stopped wanting to do it.

This is a perfect example of a man asking or expecting women to coddle his emotional issues because he sees his comfort as more valuable than their labor. It’s one of the many costs of the Act Like a Man Box, the difficulty many men have with managing their own emotions, and the expectation that women will do it for them. I didn’t know how to lean into my discomfort and do the healing work that I needed to do. Instead, I tried to reduce my discomfort by controlling the trigger. In this case, that was trying to get women to stop expressing their negative feelings, even when they had nothing to do with me and despite the fact that they had every right to their emotions and their expressions.

Of course, this is hardly the only reason men do this. There’s also the fact that women are supposed to constantly be on display for men’s visual pleasure. This is sexual labor that women are expected to perform. Women are expected to be eye candy for any random dude who sees them walking down the street, and that’s ridiculous.

Women are also supposed to be accommodating and to set their own needs aside, even to a total stranger. This is another kind of emotional labor that women are expected to perform, and while the motivation may be different than the desire to not feel discomfort when we see women who seem unhappy, the way that men demand it looks pretty much the same. The impact of this is huge. A lot of men expect their desires to be more important than a woman’s needs, and that is the definition of privilege.

I’ve always found it really curious that most men, when confronted about this, will fall back on claiming that they just wanted to compliment her. They don’t see that trying to make someone smile is an attempt to control her. And while they usually deny any sexual component to their actions, I can’t help but notice how much more often it happens to women that these guys find attractive. If the frequency and tone of your compliments correlates with how attractive you think someone is, you don’t get to pretend that there’s nothing sexual about your motivations, whether you actually want to have sex with her or not. Expecting women you think are attractive to perform femininity for you is one of the many sexist microagressions that reinforce gender inequities. Stop it. You’re making the world a worse place.

And then there’s this specific situation, in which a man threatened reprisals for non-compliance. He extorted sexual and emotional labor because he could. He might have thought that he was being funny, without any intention of following through. But that’s like someone who’s big and muscular “joking” that he’s going to punch me in the face. My ability to protect myself is less than his ability to follow through on his “joke, ” and I don’t know if he’s actually going to do it. It’s a violation of trust that makes it harder for me to move through the world feeling safe. And what this driver did to Alex (and, I assume, does to other people) was much the same. They had to choose between compliance, confrontation, or the risk of retaliation.

That’s the deeper problem with this kind of thing. Whether the motivation is harassment, a desire for sexual validation by getting a woman to smile, or to avoid one’s own uneasiness with women’s discomfort, it’s all about controlling women. And when women don’t comply with that, they run the risk of reprisals. Women already walk through the world worrying about their safety from men, and there’s no way to know who’s going to lash out. This driver might have had no intention of following through on his threat, but how could she have known that?

So here’s my suggestion for any men who feel the urge to get a woman to smile for them. Stop and ask yourself if you would do the same thing if you were engaging with a man. If that person is your close friend and you want to help them out, then perhaps your answer is yes. Though I expect that in those situations, you’d probably ask them what was going on instead of demanding that they pretend that things are OK. If you’re training someone at work and part of their job is to smile to customers, or if you’re a photographer, then yes, telling someone to smile is a reasonable thing to do and it has nothing to do with the gender of the person.

But if you wouldn’t do it to a man, then stop it. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are. Stop it. Figure out why you expect women to perform unpaid emotional labor for you. Figure out what’s prompting you to try to control women’s emotions and behaviors and faces. Figure out why you think that’s ok. And then do what you need to do to change that about yourself so that you can be a better man. Do what you need to do to make the world a safer place. Because if you’re not making yourself part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and we don’t need that. Stop it.

Update: Stop Telling Women To Smile is an awesome art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh about street harassment. Check out the Kickstarter page and her video below.

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17 Responses so far.

  1. Sinclair says:

    Wow. Awesome, Charlie. I saw Sabrina’s update with that story this morning too and it definitely struck me as significant. I love how you’ve deconstructed it from a masculine/men’s perspective, and love the call to action to just stop it.
    I like the “leaning into discomfort” concept too … and that you point out that it’s a skill to develop really lit off a light in me about my own experience. It’s so different to be curious about those places of opening than to be defending ourselves/myself from discomfort.


  2. Leela says:

    Hey, Charlie,
    I read much more often than I post, but I nearly always appreciate your thoughtful and nuanced approach.  Your ability to step outside of the privilege box and take a long look at the world is fantastic; your willingness to do so out loud and in public is what really endears you to me.  
    And in this piece I’m appreciating that, combined with Sabrina’s post (which I saw and was bothered by, but I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say), you’ve made me more aware of something that often wearies me even when I don’t notice it.  It’s like the refrigerator hum, all those microagressions, and you said it so I could see it.
    Now if only I could feel that sigh of relief when the compressor shuts off.
    Thanks, Charlie.

  3. I just adore the discussions you generate! Generating the internal inquiry is the fundamental key!Keep up the good work!

  4. Laila Blake says:

    Such a wonderful post, thank you for sharing it. I have to say even as a very opinionated feminist, this has always been somewhat confusing to me. I’m someone who smiles a lot naturally, party to battle my social anxiety and I am pretty known among my friends and family to be the one telling people to smile – especially my little brother. (e.g. “Omg, who raised you? Can’t you at least smile at that shop assistant when you ask them to help you?” etc.)
    I think smiling is a good thing, an important thing — but like you and many others I was severely creeped out by Sabrina’s story and have been trying to figure out the difference for a while now. One of the most memorable instances of a man telling me to smile was in my teens on a paramedic training course. The teachers were handsome young men we had been lusting over all through the week-long seminar and we got along well. At the final exam they were sitting across from us (two at a time, in this case my friend and I) and were asking us the exam questions. Then one of them touched the corner of his mouth – I assumed I had something there and started rubbing and got confused, and then he whispered “Smile!” We must have looked terrified and after he did that we all laughed and the tension went away and everything about the rest of the exam went much easier.
    In this situation, I genuinely think he didn’t tell us to smile because he felt uncomfortable but because we did. It was really nice and I am pretty sure unless homophobia and the fear of it being misinterpreted as flirting didn’t play a role (arrrgh!) he would have done it to a man as well. 
    But since then I have been in more than enough situations – not quite as obviously disgusting as the one above – that felt like a man putting some kind of obligation on me – either because he wanted to improve his view or wanted to be coddled or whatever. This is why I loved your post and your approach – it’s not always wrong — it’s just something to be careful about.

  5. Aislinn Emirzian says:

    As always, you are so insightful. <3

  6. Oh, heck yeah! And while we’re at it, can we PLEEEASE get rid of that awful phrase “Cheer up love, it might never happen?” *headdesk*
    Not quite the same, but definitely related: I was once walking past a building site eating a Danish pastry and some builder-type bloke yelled out to me “You’ll get fat!” The fact that I was barely eight stone at the time made that remark insulting enough – but added to that I had only just made a long, slow recovery from anorexia nervosa… let’s just say my response was probably less courteous than it would otherwise have been. Obviously there was no way the guy could’ve known that about me (although I was still pretty skinny at that point) – but what business was it of his anyway to critique my calorie intake (and, presumably, it’s effects on my potential attractiveness regarding body size?) we have girls of six thinking they’re ‘too fat’ now, simply because they’re hearing and seeing all this stuff in the media about who’s looking ‘flabby’ and ‘ballooned’ and ‘let herself go…’

  7. Puzzled says:

    I find it quite interesting that you choose to target men who tell women to smile, and yet you fail to acknowledge that quite often women also tell men to smile.  Is it harassment and forced emotional labor when it’s the other way round?  Or are both genders simply trying to be pleasant to one another?  In all honesty, I think you’re overanalyzing your own gender and applying a double standard.  Sometimes a cake is just a cake.

  8. Wil says:

    As a man in the gay world I am told to smile as well and it does not phase me one bit.

  9. Puzzled, how often does that happen? And when it does, if a man doesn’t comply, how often does he gt insulted, yelled at, threatened, and harassed? Until I hear as many stories about this kind of harassment from men as I do from women, I’m going to say that you’re setting up a false equivalence.

  10. Wil, a lot of things happen in the gay world that seem superficially similar to stuff that happens between men and women. But because the gender dynamics are different, they’re different situations. For example, many girls start getting harassed on the street at 13 or 14 years old. Not just by other teens, but by adult men. A lot of the women I’ve talked to about that said that they learned to fear men’s attention in public. Does that happen to gay men? Not nearly so often.

    It might not bother you, as a gay man. But that doesn’t imply anything about women’s experiences of this kind of thing.

  11. Last year I shared on Facebook about my frustration with men needing me to smile for them …
    “I am not sure if it is because I am a woman?, but I have often been told (usually by men) to “stop frowning”, or “just smile” when I’m seen frowning. 
    My friend Wendy calls her forehead frown, her “Purpose Lines” — I resonate with that. I often frown when I am deeply in my purpose, or concentrating or deep in thought. No, nothing is wrong, thank you, and I am not in a state that needs to be “solved” with a smile.
    ..and so what if I do feel upset or grumpy? Is it because you don’t know what to say? Do you feel uncomfortable with feeling other than joy? 
    Why the maniacal obsession with a “nice” smile? 
    I love actress, Lena Headey (300, and Game of Thrones) she frowns a lot in hr roles, but it always strikes me as a gesture of nobility. Her frown is regal and devastatingly beautiful.

  12. Douglas Nolan says:

    I am distressed that this is being categorized as a gender specific issue. It is not.

    It is only one of many oppressive sociological characteristics that show the level of non acceptance this society as a whole exhibits towards those of us who do not conform with a very narrow definition of what is considered normal or acceptable..

    When I am concentrating or focused on something of interest I, apparently, look very serious. I am barraged by the “it is easier to smile” mentality almost everywhere I go, almost exclusively from CIS gender women. It would be very easy for me to argue that it is the women who are perpetrating this form of harassment against men, since that is my personal experience, if I did not go out and get more information. This dual perspective, especially on relationship issues, is very common. Both sides perpetrate the same destructive behaviours and categorize those behaviours as the failing of the other side.

    This is a strong indicator of how I am, some how,  responsible for others discomfort. They are uncomfortable because they can not interpret or they misinterpret my facial expression so they demand that I change it for them.

    It is just a small manifestation of the lack of personal responsibility that pervades our culture. Huge swaths of our society feel comfortable telling me and my family that we SHOULD be acting, loving, playing…. living in a way that they do not FEEL uncomfortable, or worse the almost capital crime of offending them.

    The issue of trying to make people smile is a sociological dysfunction that is not a sexist issue and I am very disturbed that, once again, a group of primarily CIS gender women have decided that an assault on men is the solution.

    Many Women have an unimaginably difficult time in our schizophrenic society but adding this to the pile of gender specific issues is not helpful and only fuels the unneeded drawing of battle lines rather than increasing awareness and facilitating healing.

    I am very concerned that an educator of your obvious abilities has taken up the feminist cry over an issue that is not gender specific.

  13. JIman says:

    This is funny. I’m a man, when i’m outside i almost never smile, i hate it when people compliment me about things like look, face, or if i do something nice but i feel like i have to compliment women that i find attractive. There is quite a bit of dissonance in my head i guess.

  14. Marigny Michel says:

    I appreciate Sabrina Morgan for her elucidation of this experience, aka “Being Trapped By A Sociopath”. He took her as a hostage and threatened to demand a high ransom unless she pleased him sexually.
    I agree with her analysis and am glad to have that particular experience so well described that I can quote her to establish a point I have thus far been unable to isolate and analyze as effectively as she.
    What I suspect that cab driver stole was Sabrina Morgan’s ability to function at her highest level of performance in the world for her own chosen purpose with her dignity and self-confidence intact. Whatever her destination, she no doubt arrived less able to function at her highest level in whatever role in whatever realm — business, academics, friendship, love — she had chosen to which to dedicate her time.
    I understand that if one is taking a cab, one is often pressured by time; otherwise, one might use cheaper forms of public transit. Do remember that, when one is not the driver, one is vulnerable. Feel free to take that metaphor and run with it, for a touchdown, if at all possible.
    If possible, however, I hope that when (not “if” — most emphatically “when” ) I am next in this sort of situation, I have the ability to remember Sabrina Morgan’s insight and have the presence of mind to Get The Hell Out Of There.
    For example, I might suddenly declare with fierce purpose:
    “Oh, NO!  I just remembered — how could I have forgotten? [Digging in purse, pulling out cell calling any random number] Oh, this is bad. This could cost me the [job, client, account]. Please let me off right away. Yes, here. Yes, yes, here, right here. [To the cell phone] Oh, are you still there? Thank you. I’ll be less than a minute, I swear. I’m a block away on state your location. Wait for me.] — Yes, Driver, right here, please. This corner, right here. [The driver’s letting me off at state your location] [To the cabbie]  — Yes, this is great. Thank you.”
    Wave off all suggestions the sociopath makes (all of which will involve staying in the  cab) and Get The Hell Out. Throw whatever money the Sociopath requests at him and Get The Hell Out Of That Trap.
    I have discovered through painful experience that once a person has established that she or he is willing to exploit me because I am — in his or her mind — “trapped” by her or him in a car, a corner, a parent’s home, a professor’s office, a job, a marriage — the wisest course of action is Get the Hell Out, Fast, and Don’t Provoke the Sociopath. Slip away like water, to invoke a Zen concept of non-confrontational solutions.
    2 points that might be salient:
    1. Never Get Caught in a Trap: The complexities of transportation in modern life have taught me the importance of allowing time to safely and calmly handle all kinds of delays. I carry work with me and aim to arrive early in the area of an appointment so that I can either be on time despite a delay or get some errand or work done while waiting.
    This habit also broadens one’s options for staying safe — walking the long way through a safer area, ditching a dangerous, drunk, or incapable cabbie, getting a cab if stuck on a bus when it breaks down in a dangerous area or late at night, etc.
    2. Be Willing to Put Safety First: That includes one’s emotional/sexual safety. Arriving at a meeting on time but having been demeaned and forced to perform sexual favors along the way at least diminishes the possibility that one will be at one’s best. The unmolested, intact fabric of one’s emotional/sexual self is as necessary to one’s freedom to thrive in the world as the unharmed, intact fabric of one’s physical health. One wouldn’t arrive at a meeting bleeding from cuts inflicted by a nearby passenger on a bus, but we the vulnerable have been taught to shut up and soldier on while bleeding and in pain from freshly-inflicted emotional and sexual damage. 
    Vulnerable people in all categories have longed struggled to perform well despite injuries inflicted by Sociopaths who would keep their collective foot on the collective neck of the vulnerable. We who are vulnerable can lessen the power of Sociopaths by learning tactics to thwart their favorite forms of oppression.
    For myself, I hope that I could keep my presence of mind (for me, this required expert treatment for the learned helplessness and the rabbit-freezing-at-the-sight-of-a-hawk response inculcated by my early abusers), put my safety first, get out, secure safer transport, and call ahead to tell the truth:
    “The cab driver proved completely incompetent, which has delayed me. I had to get another cab. Best case, I’ll be on time but not early; worst case, I’ll be ten to fifteen minutes late. Thank you.”
    If queried politely about the cab delay, tell the truth: “In my experience, cab drivers range from competent to ‘Pardon me, how many days since you first learned to drive a car?’ Unfortunately, I drew one of the latter.” Getting a laugh allows one to move on and shine.
    If we, the vulnerable, can excel at these kinds of tactics (I call them Being Teflon Woman — nothing sticks to me; I slide out from under it), then we get to keep intact our ability to function in the world at our highest levels of performance, dignity and self-confidence intact. This requires that we work together to innovate, test, practice, teach-learn, and learn/teach.
    The greatest weapon the Socipaths have is that they scare us into silence. When we tell the truth, as Sabrina Morgan has so beautifully done, especially to each other, we can voice and enact our collective wisdom, bought so dearly by costly experiences of pain and loss, and thus learn to thrive.

    Thank you, Sabrina Morgan for your insight and voice. Thank you, Charlie Glickman, for shepherding this collective of responders into existence, and for your insights that trigger conversations like this one.

  15. T says:

    I love it how the people complaining about it not being a ‘gender specific issue’ seem to be men. Unless you’re a woman, you’re not going to have the same experience as women do. As much as I hate saying this cliche phrase, men — check your privilege.
    It’s largely about entitlement; that is, men feeling entitled to dictate what women should or should not do with their bodies. Like it’s stated in the article and comments, women are expected to be ready and available at all times; sexually, emotionally or otherwise.
    As a woman, it’s never occurred to me to walk up to strange men and tell them to smile. To be honest I think it’s kind of rude because what business is it of mine? Besides, not everyone is happy all the time, and me saying something is hardly going to make a difference.
    I mean good for you if you can walk down the street without being bothered by total strangers; good for you if it only happens once in a blue moon. For many women it’s a daily occurrence. Like Charlie said, false equivalence. 

  16. lm says:

    “but what business was it of his anyway to critique my calorie intake (and, presumably, it’s effects on my potential attractiveness regarding body size?) “
    I think more than anything, this is the point here.

  17. joe says:

    Labels, labels, labels.
    while it is true that Men do this,
    women are just as shallow. just ask a handsome guy who dresses sharp and talks smooth how long does it take to pick up a gal in a bar? Perhaps 15 minutes? Then the ones that don’t get that guy have the sour grape attitude and projects that. It cuts both ways just in different manifestations.

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