Monday, October 13, 2008

Feeling and display rules of emotion

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.

Originally posted on


Knumb said...

Hmm... such constraints are lifted on the Internet, which probably contributes to why people act out so much here.

There's a funny scene at the end of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," where the two protagonists research the addresses of all the people dissin' them on the web and fly to their houses to beat them up. It's pretty funny.

Brad Wright said...

Good point about the internet... I hadn't thought about that.