The Emotional Toil and Toll of Office Work
“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”
I taped up the following quote up near my desk where I worked as a secretary. For the last five years, I had worked for the organization for two whole dollars above minimum wage and some pretty rocking benefits – at least in theory. (It’s worth noting that although friends coveted my benefits package, my meager paycheck couldn’t stretch to cover insurance deductibles, so I never visited the doctor or dentist, even when asthma had me gasping for air and a cavity slowly morphed into a dead root.)
In addition to my bureaucracy quote, I also decorated my office with various feminist paraphernalia, including goddess statues and quotes about women’s worth. A coworker even crafted a very official-looking sign for the door that read “Goddess Elle.”
In my workplace, I perched on the bottom rung of a very steep ladder. My first five years, I had slogged through payroll-related tasks and knew I made literally less than everyone else. (As any feminist theorist would predict, two White guys occupied our two highest paid positions.) My official job titles morphed from “Records Clerk” to “Office Specialist,” but I called myself a secretary; I answered phones, faxed, maintained correspondences, suffered through A/R and some A/P, and I did it all while smiling and laughing with my coworkers, all of whom made substantially more money than me.
I performed rote administrative tasks that rarely strained my brain; my primary reason for existing in that setting involved lavishing cheerfulness and subservience on the public. As do all secretaries, I sold my emotional labor, meaning the biggest part of my job involved pretending to be happy, assuming responsibility for the general cheer of our workplace, and providing an emotional buffer between my coworkers and the public (Hoschchild, 2012 ). I made everyone happy as diligently and reliably as I made coffee every morning. The price of emotional labor, as Hochschild notes, is quite high. Selling my feelings required me to either perform inauthentically or to convince myself I genuinely cared about the people I assisted -- not an easy task. When people treated me rudely or curtly or as just another piece of office furniture, my chest burned, but I unfailingly smiled and wished them a pleasant day. Even my phone voice radiated cheer, as several people mentioned when I chirped my canned greeting into the dreaded mouthpiece.
Later, if I had time between my eight-hour shift at work and my night classes or my second job, I inevitably scrambled home and slumped on my couch for an hour, staring at the ceiling, trying to find myself again. I ached with tiredness for the seven years I worked as a secretary, not only because I worked two jobs and went to school full-time but also, as I would discover later in life, interpersonal interactions drain this introvert very quickly.
I obsessively decorated my office. Of course I did. I was a straight A college student getting her Social Sciences degree, a secretary for forty hours per week, a feminist opinion columnist for a local newspaper, and an activist during my spare time. Occupying the bottom of a workplace hierarchy humiliated me, and stapling a constant, beatific, subservient smile to my face sometimes stung. According to Goffman’s role theory, I engaged in role distancing, meaning while performing my role as secretary, I placed distance between my audience and me by also having visual symbols of my other identities: scholar and activist (Cohen, 2004). I may be a lowly secretary, my many quotes and feminist baubles reminded folks, but I am also a brilliant social scientist and social justice warrior. Role distancing helped me maintain a positive sense of self in what was otherwise a demeaning social position.
Of course, Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality says we are nothing if not multiple “roles” (she would say identities, of course) that coexist and influence one another (1989). I was not just a secretary but also a feminist, a woman, a student, a fat person, and so on. Most of these coexisted beautifully, if not necessarily harmoniously, in a statue of a fat goddess I kept on my desk at work in an attempt to ease some of the humiliation I felt as a devalued worker in a job with low pay and almost no, as Weber would call it, occupational prestige (Gilbert, 2014).
Another example of role distancing? Me saying very often to my family members, “Being a secretary reminds me every day why feminism and a higher degree are absolutely necessary.”
Note: This is my response to a course project in my Social Stratification class in which I asked students to relate various theories to their occupational experience.
Cohen, R. 2004. Role Distance: On Stage and On the Merry-Go-Round. Journal of Dramatic Theory and
Criticism: Fall. Found at http://www.robertcohendrama.com/other-writings/role-distance-on-stage-and-on-
Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of
Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. In the University of Chicago Legal
Gilbert, D. 2014. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 9th ed. Sage Publishing.
Hochschild, A. 2012.  The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California