Online Boundaries and Emotional Labour

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for a whole month of great cinema for free. The nature of online platforms has shaped
the way we interact in striking, and often profoundly bizarre, ways. While it would be
extremely untoward to walk up to a stranger on the street and “playfully” insult them,
demand their opinions on various controversial issues, or join in on a conversation they’re
having with a friend, online platforms have, at least to some degree, normalized these
behaviours. And not just towards public figures, either: the online world has created an entirely
new sphere of social interactions with new rules and boundaries, and it seems like we
aren’t really sure how we should be navigating it yet. This is particularly interesting because social
media has hastened the spread of sociological concepts that describe various troubling phenomena.
Although terms like “emotional labour” and “gaslighting” and “trigger” have
existed for quite some time, it’s only been in the past few years that they’ve taken
up mainstream usage on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit. And when these concepts
factor into the still-unanswered question of how we should set boundaries online, things
can get extra complicated. If a friend is struggling and you’re talking them through
it, is that emotional labour? Is it therefore a violation of consent to vent to your friend
without asking them first? Attempts to answer this question have been
a little bit… messy at times. About a month ago, we saw an explosion of proposed templates
for social interactions with your friends. Phrases like “are you in the right headspace
to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” cropped up in response to this
idea that we have a problem with boundaries when it comes to hanging out with our friends
online. In effect, the argument seems to be that when we’re not receiving consent before
dumping a lot of heavy stuff on our friends, we’re violating their boundaries, enabling
toxic friendships, and forcing them to perform emotional labour. Similarly, other users drafted
template responses that folks could use to say no when a friend asks to vent to you,
with phrases like “I’m actually at my emotional capacity”. Of course, as soon as this template trend
took off, its mockery took off ten times as potently. People were quick to argue that
using these kinds of templates makes you sound like a cold robot who doesn’t care about
your friends, that supporting your friends isn’t what the term emotional labour is
supposed to mean, and that messages like that disguise sociopathy as self-care. The template issue, while particularly contentious,
quickly fizzled out, but there wasn’t a real resolution to the debate, and most of
the questions it raised remain unanswered. This is going to be the first part of a two
part video about how we navigate boundaries online. There are two main types of interactions
I think have been impacted in interesting ways by online communication: there’s how
we interact with our friends and how we interact with strangers. In this video, I’m going
to talk about those friend interactions and how boundary-setting with friends has been
shaped by the online sphere. So first of all, what’s up with friendship
and emotional labour? One of the most interesting changes that comes
with social media is that unlike in the past when we only had home phones, most of us are
able to be reached at virtually any time. I remember before I had a cell phone, when
I used to go out, people wouldn’t really be able to reach me. And then I remember before
I had a phone that was built for texting, people could call me, but people mostly wouldn’t
unless it was really important. But now, my friends and family can reach me
at virtually any time if they really need to. And this is often a good thing; I like
hearing from my friends, and being able to share snippets of my day with people I care
about is important to me! But, the expectation of constant communication can also make things
difficult in certain contexts. Because while I love replying to my friends’ messages,
this constant availability now means if I don’t reply for a while, people might think
something’s wrong. I mean, some people even set up automatic text replies when they’re
driving, so that people who don’t receive an immediate reply can understand why. And the idea that people have to reply to
messages instantly unless they have a reason not to has certainly created issues in some
social interactions. Like, what happens when you suddenly receive a really heavy message
from someone, and you’re in the middle of something really stressful yourself? Debates
about how to handle stuff like this have started to crop up, and the term “emotional labour”
has become particularly popular. The term’s been used a lot on Twitter to
refer to the work we do emotionally in relationships with our friends and partners. For example,
our friend comes to us crying, and we spend hours with them trying to make them feel better.
Some people have described the work we do here to be encouraging and supportive and
keep your own feelings contained as a form of labour. This, unsurprisingly, has been
contentious, with some people claiming that it’s shitty to equate “being a good friend”
with “doing work”. Some analysis has also suggested that this entire mentality just
happens because of capitalism. A system that prioritizes constantly growing profits can
make any interaction seem like some sort of transaction. So, think about posting funny content on the
internet. Something that could just be fun interactions with your friends are now constantly
encouraged to be monetized. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in every context- it’s
great that people can make a living off their creativity- but it is true that there can
be a trend of pretty much everything you do feeling like a transaction. Some people have
therefore argued that using the term “labour” to refer to interactions with your friends
is just capitalist brain rot that makes you see all of your relationships as transactional. There’s also a significant subset of the
“emotional labour” arguments that describe it not only as an individual issue in relationships,
but also as an issue that’s divided across racial and gender lines. So, for example,
if a husband and wife both have jobs and supposedly do equal housework, but the wife is the one
who always keeps track of who does what and has to remind her husband what tasks to do,
that can also take up significant mental energy, and some people have described that practice
as “emotional labour”. And if 9 times out of 10, it’s the wife who has to do this
labour and it’s not really acknowledged, that’s kind of a problem. Or, if someone you know says something racist
or sexist that impacts you, and you have to explain to them why that’s the case, those
conversations can be mentally exhausting. Especially when they last a really long time,
and you have to have conversations like that with different people often. In effect, people
have started using the term to describe emotional interactions in interpersonal relationships
that Feel Like Work, and have argued that it often impacts marginalized groups more
often than others. Though these do describe real issues, the
conflation of those problems with the term “Emotional Labour” is somewhat of a new
one. The term actually has a different meaning than how it’s commonly used, and by using
the wrong word for these other issues, we might be making it harder to talk about what
Emotional Labour actually is. So, the term was coined by sociologist Arlie
Hochschild to describe how workers in many jobs are forced not only to do the expected
requirements of their jobs, but also to manage and regulate their emotions in ways that often
don’t get discussed. So, for example, you might think the job description of a Starbucks
worker is just to make coffee and heat up baking items and misspell people’s names
on cups. But, actually, your job also involves a lot of regulating your emotions to make
them palatable to customers and your employer. If you have a chronic pain condition and you’re
talking to customers, you’re not supposed to show it or seem unhappy; you’re supposed
to perform joy for them. If you’re getting yelled at and called horrible names because
you won’t take a customer’s expired coupon, you’re often not allowed to appear angry
about it. On the whole, you’re expected to appear unfailingly happy, polite, and sociable
regardless of how you’re feeling, AND you’re expected to make it seem like your emotions
are completely genuine all the time. Not only do you have to smile, you have to smile authentically
so customers don’t feel lied to. I mean, just look at this description from
a Starbucks job posting in Quebec. “Baristas personally connect and create moments that
make a difference and work together to create a welcoming store environment.” Like, what
the hell? That’s ridiculous. Of course you’re not going to be “personally connecting”
with all the people who come into your store for an expensive mocha. You’re creating
coffee, not “moments”. But because the expectation in so many work environments is
that employees constantly appear authentically happy and create beautiful moments of genuine
human connection with every person who enters a shop’s doors, workers have these bizarre
expectations placed upon them. And that’s genuinely exhausting to constantly
maintain. Especially when you consider how terrible some customers are. You know when
you have a relative you hate and you have to spend time with them and you have to smile
politely and not show a single negative emotion, all the while you’re dying inside? Imagine
doing that, all the time, and if you don’t, you lose your job. Of course, Starbucks was just an example,
and this is a thing in all kinds of work environments. But it’s particularly prevalent in service
and caretaking jobs. So, teachers, doctors and nurses, waitstaff, and similar workers
in particular not only have to do the job part of their job, but also constantly manage
their emotions as well. And a lot of the aforementioned jobs tend to mostly be done by women. So,
when topics like this start to be discussed, people often talk about emotional labour as
something with a gendered element to it. I think this point here is what has most often
caused confusion and brought the term into this mainstream, bizarre discourse. So, we hear that “emotional labour” is
a thing, and we hear that it especially tends to impact people who are already marginalized.
Meanwhile, people are rightfully talking about the mental load that unbalanced social interactions
can create. The term “emotional labour”, if one didn’t know better, could kind of
sound like a term describing anything a person has to do mentally that sounds like work.
And I think this is where we get takes like “asking a friend to explain something to
you is forcing her to do emotional labour”. In actuality, that’s not the case, because
that’s not what “emotional labour” means. It’s not just meant to describe anything
emotionally exhausting; it’s specifically about, well, labour. So, I mean, that fairly
well answers the question of “are you doing emotional labour when your friends vent to
you”? The answer is no. But, while I don’t think that’s the term people should be using
to describe the issue, I don’t think that’s the real question. Despite the fact that the
wording is wrong, I think what people are really asking when they talk about this issue
isn’t “does this fit the definition of emotional labour?”. It’s “is this a
form of work that it’s bad to expect people to do”? And that’s a more complicated
question than simply a matter of definitions. So, from here on out, for clarity, when we
talk about these interactions, and templates to say no to these interactions, I’m going
to try and use the less common phrase “emotion work” instead. Unlike “emotional labour”,
“emotion work” specifically refers to managing your own and other people’s feelings,
and the work that goes into managing relationships. So: what’s up with those boundaries? Most new-seeming interactions that crop up
online aren’t, I think, the result of the Internet changing some fundamental nature
about how we behave. It allows us to connect with one another faster and on a much larger
scale than we used to in the past; ergo, most online interactions are simply faster and
larger-scale versions of interactions we’ve kind of always had. One of my favourite iterations
of this is this web page from some history professor, where it just details translated
graffiti from ancient Rome. It’s all stuff like “my girlfriend left me”, “this
person likes this person”, “the service here is terrible”, and dirty jokes, and
it reads like a message board today. So I think in a lot of ways, it hasn’t fully
changed how we interact, but just how quickly we interact and who we interact with. But I absolutely do think this expectation
of constant availability genuinely has shaped the way we experience relationships with each
other. It’s permeated all aspects of life, from people’s jobs to their friendships.
Because people constantly have their phones and computers on them, they’re often expected
to be available for contact 24/7. It’s gotten so bad that France has actually had to specifically
grant employees the right to ignore work emails after 6 pm, because otherwise you’re basically
on call all the time. Naturally, a lot of times when this critique
of constant availability is levelled, it tends to be levelled to refer to the kind of labour
we’re doing at work. Of course it’s not healthy to be expected to be contactable by
your boss literally all the time. You probably don’t even like your boss, and if you don’t
have a life outside work, you may barely have a life. But, much like people have used a term describing
paid work to describe the work we do in friendships, this might also refer to constant availability
in terms of interpersonal relationships. Think back to what I said earlier about people setting
up automated text replies for when they’re driving. I mean, you can’t even just Not
Reply for the amount of time it takes you to drive somewhere without having to justify
to people why you’re not available to them. And in interpersonal relationships, that can
sometimes be hard. Not because you don’t like your friends, but because having time
to yourself is healthy as well. Being able to take time for yourself without feeling
as though you’re betraying anyone who might possibly want to talk to you is fairly important. The reason I say this is not to go on some
alarmist rant about how technology and cell phones are dangerous and are destroying the
fabric of relationships and of society. Of course, being able to contact your friends
and family even when you’re apart has a lot of benefits as well. Sometimes you need
support, or want to make plans with someone, and it’s just nice to have the comfort of
knowing your friends are there when you are. Many of my friends live all over the world,
and we can’t see each other in person that often. It makes our friendships feel real
and alive when I can message my friend in Armenia and hear back just like that. It’s
amazing. But, it’s also true that there are negatives
to the expectation that as long as you have your phone on you, that means you’re available
to contact no matter what, and if you aren’t for any period of time, that’s something
you immediately have to justify. And I think that’s part of why we’re seeing tweets
suggesting templates for how to reply to a friend when they’re struggling but you aren’t
always able to drop everything and talk to them. Because as awkwardly robotic as those specific
templates ended up being, there is truth to the fact that sometimes, when a friend comes
to you and tells you they want to vent about something, you aren’t always going to be
able to reply in real time. Maybe you’re going through a crisis yourself, or helping
someone else, or you simply need your own time. “I’m actually at my emotional capacity”
definitely sounds like a funny response in certain contexts, but in some contexts, it
can also absolutely be a real thing. I think so many of us care about our friends
so deeply that we always want to be able to help them through anything and fix all their
problems, and there are many situations where that’s just not possible. I have a lot of
friends online who are going through really difficult stuff in their personal lives that
I can’t fix, and it’s often a source of stress for me. I can provide emotional support,
but I can’t literally go in there and solve their problems, and I hate that. And sometimes,
I find myself so disturbed by the fact that I can’t save my friends from their problems
that I drive myself crazy. And that doesn’t help them either. It’s really good and really
necessary to be there for our friends, but when we take no time to take care of ourselves
in the process, we can be stretched so thin that we can’t help them or ourselves. Of course, there are always going to be people
who take stuff like that in bad faith by taking it to an extreme. There are people who will
constantly ignore their friends in times of need and frame it as self-care. And, of course,
that’s wrong too, and I think that’s where a lot of concern over those text templates
comes from. It’s pretty worrying to think that if you need help, your friends will simply
rebuff you if they’re having a slightly bad day. But with social media creating a
sense of constant availability, there does exist this idea that if you aren’t able
to support your friend through anything at any moment, you’re being a bad friend. So
while those specific templates certainly don’t come off well, the principle behind it isn’t
based on nothing. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of
these responses are context-dependent. Not everyone is always going to be able to be in the emotional state to send out a chipper “hey! Is it okay if I vent for a couple moments?”, and
real interactions are often a lot messier than these Twitter templates make them out
to be. When these templates are accompanied by absolutist messages like “you should
never vent to your friend without asking for permission first or you’re a toxic person”,
or when responses have messages like “if you aren’t willing to drop everything for
your friends at any time, you’re not a real friend”, they ignore a lot of nuance. Different
situations will always necessitate different responses, and the same is true for different
people. Think of that message that’s like “are
you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?”. For many
people, that’s probably not going to be a very useful thing to hear. They already
know something is wrong, so a lot of people are just going to be worrying about what it
could be and imagining the worst. On the other hand, that might be a beneficial thing for
some people to hear. For some people, if you know bad news is coming, you might be able
to excuse yourself from whatever it is you’re doing, maybe get some rest, and then come
back to hear what’s going on. I am not one of those people. But I’m also not going
to presume they don’t exist. That being said, I don’t mean to say that
just because templates don’t work for every context and person, no one should use them
ever. Another interesting critique explaining why some people might use these templates
is that for a lot of people, it’s hard to say the right thing to someone who’s struggling,
especially if you aren’t sure how to help them. And for some people, especially if you’re
autistic or simply overwhelmed, having a response already written out that you can use to express
your feelings in an understandable way can be really helpful. I think this is a really
fair point, and while I don’t think it’s a good defense of every template- starting
a message to someone in crisis with “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out” does not
come off well- it does acknowledge that having a prewritten response to something doesn’t
mean you don’t personally care about your friend. Truthfully, I do think the fact that people
got so angry about these templates on Twitter is simply because the phrasing was awkward
and stilted, rather than their actual content. Although many of them suggested you should
customize them to your needs, you probably don’t want to come off as a customer service
representative when your friend is going through it. Using templates is necessary for some
people, but maybe we should be writing better ones. TL;DW Despite some very awkward framing on Twitter,
emotional capacity and emotion work are real things, and I think we should all take care
to make sure we’re looking after ourselves so that we’re equipped to help our friends.
Sometimes, that might mean saying “I’m really overwhelmed right now, are we able
to talk a bit later?”. That in and of itself doesn’t mean you don’t care about your
friends, and being on 24 hour call to instantly reply to every message isn’t a realistic
or healthy expectation for most people. But, of course, that doesn’t mean we have
no obligation to support our friends. Ultimately, a lot of these situations are genuinely context-dependent.
It’s wrong to say that you’re a bad friend if you aren’t always reachable, and it’s
wrong to say that you’re a bad friend if you don’t always ask before venting. Truthfully,
Twitter is kind of bad at nuance, and we probably should all just move to Livejournal or whatever. I also think on the whole, despite the fact
that many people misuse the term “emotional labour”, the fact that the same critiques
we apply to our work environments are now also being applied to our personal relationships
is really interesting. To me, this suggests that the most toxic elements of harmful work
cultures have become so prevalent that they’re seeping into other aspects of our lives. When
you’re expected to be available to your boss twenty four hours a day, seven days a
week, you’re being stretched so thin that it’s even harder to be available to your
friends for that same amount of time. When you spend all of your time at work pretending
to be happy to make a customer’s day marginally more “magical”, it’s even harder to
come home and appear “strong” for a friend that needs it. Truthfully, terrible jobs make
the rest of our lives terrible too. I also think that’s also a big reason why the term “emotional
labour” took off the way it did. When paid labour is demanding so much from us on the
emotional side of things, it can make it harder to manage those emotions in a personal context
as well. I think this is a case not just of confused terminology, but also of trying to analyze
how we’re all impacted by technology and capitalism. The wording might be off, but
emotional labour and emotion work can and do affect each other. Whether or not interpersonal relationships
count as “labour”, I think one fact that’s obvious is that the way actual labour is treated
in society is deeply concerning. Whether it’s forcing workers to swallow any sign of discomfort
to appear “authentically happy” all the time to the fact that when people are unable
to work, they’re often consigned to horrific poverty even if they get assistance, the culture
of both social interactions and actual paid interactions is particularly concerning, and these two things are fundamentally tied together. So I think it’s worth saying, together. When workers
come together and form unions and fight back against these conditions, it can make a difference
for generations to come; it’s the reason many of us have an eight-hour work day. If you’re working and you’re not unionized,
I would encourage people watching this to think about joining or creating one. It’s
not always easy to do so, especially when employers have a vested interest in making
sure people who work don’t come together and advocate for themselves. I’ve put some
resources in my description who want to learn more about unions and how to start them. Keep
in mind, I do live in Canada, and the resources are I’ve chosen based on what I know and
aren’t necessarily going to be generalizable to the laws and work cultures in every country.
I do hope they’re a starting point for some people, nevertheless. I watched this really good film on MUBI called
I, Daniel Blake. It’s a British movie about a man living in Newcastle who becomes sick
and can’t work, and it’s this story about how the systems we have right now are really
failing to support the most vulnerable people in society. It’s a really powerful story,
and I’m very glad I watched the film. It’s a fictitious story, but it’s a really good
and really real watch. It’s one of the reasons I’m really glad MUBI is my sponsor for this
video, because it gave me an opportunity both to watch the film and to share it with others.
I would really recommend it for anyone who wants to watch a powerful film that tells
an impactful story about how people in society should be better working to support one another. If you’d like to watch this movie, or any
other of the films MUBI has available, you can use my promo code, which is MUBI dot com
slash sarahz, for a month of great cinema for free. Basically, the way MUBI works is
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slash sarah z. On top of a big thank you to all my patrons,
I’d like to specially thank Adam Granger and Thomas P. Tkoch for joining my $20+ tier!

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