Camels dressed in riding attire laying and standing in a vast desert.

Animals manage emotions, only some perform emotional labour.

When people hear that I research interspecies emotional labour performances, many respond enthusiastically. They claim to observe their animal companions performing emotional labour all the time. On one hand, this is great. It shows an openness and receptiveness to the concept of other animals performing emotional labour. However, oftentimes, the animal they refer to is not actually doing so. Being nit-picky about distinctions here may seem a bit unnecessary at first glance. But it is actually quite important to do so and I’ll use this post to clarify why.

The term emotional labour gets thrown around quite a bit. Emotion management scholars find that it can, more often than not, be over-generalised and problematically defined even within academic literature (Grandey et al., 2013; Kruml and Geddes, 2000). To offer clarity, before jumping into the thick of it, I’ll offer some definitions. Imagine the concept of emotion management as a large balloon that encompasses us. Managing emotions and their displays is, especially perhaps as social creatures, something which most animals do to survive, communicate, play, and otherwise interact and relate (if you are interested in reading more about this, the work of Frans de Waal and Marc Bekoff, for example, are great sources to start with). Within this large “emotion management balloon”, individuals across species find themselves in different bubbles (which sometimes overlap, bump into each other, even join to create one large one). There are three main bubbles that float around within the balloon of emotion management which I would like to discuss and distinguish today: emotional labour, organised emotional care, and emotion work.

Emotional labour has exchange value (Gong, 2020; Hochschild, 1983) and places an emphasis on the external presentation of emotion (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, what is being said and offered and the demeanour with which that is being done). Hochschild (i.e. 1979, 1983, 2008, 2009a, 2009b) is the most notable scholar who introduced the concept of emotional labour in the form it is referred to, most often, today. To perform emotional labour, an individual manages their feelings to present an appropriate emotion display in work-related interactions. This can of course, at times, extend to personal, private lives, making clear definitions or emotional labour episodes difficult to conceptualise (Knight, 2020; Whitaker, 2019). Coulter (2020) wrote that similar can be said for workers of other species whose work-lives require emotional labour. The aim of emotional labour then is to align with feeling rules, also referred to as display rules (Geddes and Lindebaum, 2020). I won’t go too much into what feeling rules are here, as it is an exceptionally large topic. Essentially they are the social guidelines that shape the expectations placed upon us and, therefore, our emotion displays and expressions. Some workers have clear expectations of how they need to behave in any given scenario, while others work within a more flexible framework.

This brings us to organised emotional care, which is an approach that does not prescribe expectations, but rather results from employers creating space for employees to establish caring relationships on their own (Wharton, 2009). At times, dynamics can form where this overlaps with emotional labour, as they both take place in professional environments (Lopez, 2006: 156). Organised emotional care essentially allows a worker some more freedom to decide when, what, for how long, and to what extent they need to present certain emotion displays for clients or patients, for example.

In another bubble, which the majority of us find ourselves in outside of working hours, is emotion work. This is predominantly concerned with the internal management of emotions. It does not have exchange value. Instead, it has use value. So if you are participating in some small talk with someone and they will not stop talking about something that you couldn’t be less interested in and instead of saying that, you smile and nod, faking your interest, you are performing emotion work not emotional labour. The use there is the keeping of social relationships, for example. You are not paid for it or otherwise employed to be polite to them during that exchange.

As Coulter (for example, 2016a, 2016b, 2020) most notably writes about, it is important to recognise all animals, including humans, as working and work toward humane jobs as an act of interspecies solidarity. My reasoning here is partly linked to this movement in academia and industry alike. While all animals work, not all are workers, nor do they work at all times (hopefully!). We lead work-lives and therefore the hours not spent working need to be considered, as these impact our work and vice versa (again, see Coulter’s work for more in-depth discussions on this).

The reason I would like to see more awareness of terminology used around emotion management is to acknowledge this. To acknowledge that performing emotional labour is a skill which needs to properly prepared for, taught, supported (through resources and offsetting of work for a start), retirement, and so on (I say “and so on”, because there is so much that goes into this and I am writing more in-depth about it elsewhere).

Oftentimes, the emotional labour that animals do (this includes humans, of course) goes unrecognised as being a professional skill. Boyle (2005: 58), for example, wrote that amongst officers, “formal training for emotional labor is still a rare occurrence. At the shop floor level, emotional labor may be considered ‘the best tool to have.’ However, in terms of resource allocation for training, technical skills are still given primacy”.

So acknowledging that animals perform emotional labour, but that not all do and it is only done during working hours, aides in defining them as workers and the emotion management they offer as work – a professional skill which needs increased proper support. Confusing it with emotion work muddies and weakens arguments in favour of this.

To clarify: your companion dog is performing emotion work when acting calm while walking on the lead, but a guide dog is performing emotional labour when guiding a visually impaired individual in a harness. Your companion horse is performing emotion work when not spooking at something which would otherwise worry them, but a police horse is performing emotional labour when carrying a police officer through the city.

Thanks for stopping by for a read!


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Boyle MV (2005) You wait until you get home”: emotional regions, emotional process work, and the role of onstage and offstage support. In: Härtel C, Zerbe W, and Ashkanasy N (eds) Emotions in Organizational Behavior. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., pp. 45–65.

Coulter K (2016a) Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coulter K (2016b) Beyond human to humane: A multispecies analysis of care work, its repression, and its potential. Studies in Social Justice 10(2): 199–219. DOI: 10.26522/ssj.v10i2.1350.

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Photo: Mathias P.R. Reding from Pexels

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