Sociology Focus
Author: Bridget Welch

Laughing at Death and Other Clichés

Have you ever laughed at a funeral? Or bawled hysterically at a wedding? Ever been so nervous you vomited at a performance… on stage? In this post, Bridget Welch explores social rules for emotions and how they differ based on your placement in the social structure.

“Here. Hide this.”

I stare dumbly at the gum wrapper he’s trying to give me. In my head, my sense of self-control commands me, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it.”

We are standing in a wood paneled room, the carpet is some deep wine color with a sickening paisley print, the people around us talking in a low murmur. Some place at the front of a room – a place I studiously avoided looking – was the reason we were all there – the reason that I was so fiercely trying to bite my tongue. Up front the young man’s father was presiding over our little tableau from the best seat in the house – his casket.

“Don’t say it. Don’t you do it,” I repeated to myself as the urge to blurt it out nearly overcame me. For those of you like me with a sickly sweet dark humor that at best is misunderstood and at worst gets me in trouble, you may already know. My initial reaction to the bereaved’s request? “Oh sure. I’ll just stick it down the casket. No one will find it there.”

To call that reaction inappropriate may be something of an understatement. To make a joke, to laugh at a funeral, while possibly understandable to some of you as a way to handle tension – is what we sociologists like to call emotionally deviant.

Emotions are something we feel so viscerally. They are something that we connect to our core authentic selves. Emotions reveal to us who we are as people. Whether we laugh, cry, vomit, or scream – we like to think that the feelings that triggered these extreme responses were 100% our own. And yet, when we look at emotions and social structure, it becomes apparent that there are rules about what emotion you are expected to feel and how long you are supposed to feel it for.

If you don’t feel the appropriate emotion in the appropriate situation? No problem, according to Arlie Hochschild, we all have the ability to manage our emotions. Emotion management – or the attempt to change in degree (how strongly you feel) or quality (emotion felt) is what allows us to “choke back tears” or “put on a happy face.” 

Called surface acting, it is the attempt to appear as if you are following the social norms (rules for behavior – specifically display rules in terms of emotions) that call for a particular type of emotion in a particular situation. This is forcing a smile at work when you may be depressed. It’s trying to appear engaged, energetic, and involved as you gaze thoughtfully up at your professor while planning what you are going to have for dinner. Sometimes, however, “turning that frown upside-down” is not enough. When you really need follow what sociologists call feeling rules and actually feel the emotion required for the situation, you can go further. You actually can attempt to change your emotion permanently through deep acting. At work you have to be happy, so you remember a time you were happy so you start feeling that way. The feeling and display rules for any particular situation is going to partially depend on your position in the social structure.

For example, higher status individuals (those with prestigious occupations, whites, and men) have freer rein to express anger. Think about it. What happens if a woman gets angry? She may receive a negative label (such as the B**** word) or someone may comment that she has PMS. African Americans, particularly men, often pay a price for their expressions of anger.

Rules are different for grief. Women are allowed to grieve for longer periods of time and be afraid (and in general just have those “weak emotions”). I mean, we all know men can’t cry (except in extreme circumstances) or be scared. Of course, women do get mad (without the PMS) and men do get scared. But, what you are encouraged to display (or discouraged from displaying) may not actually match what you feel.

We all do emotion management every day. I do it every time I walk into the classroom. Do you think I spend my life happy and upbeat all the time (if you tried to answer that question as a yes, I refer you to what I wanted to say to my bereaved friend up above)? I try hard to come across happy to my students – following the display rules of a professor. In fact, I’m willing to bet almost everyone who reads this post does emotion management at work. Heck, even when I was back in telemarketing and my customers couldn’t even see my face, I still would be told to “SMILE, SMILE, SMILE!!!”. Why? You can hear a smile in a person’s voice. Not all jobs require you to be happy. Some, like debt collectors (as Hochschild would write about) require you to get angry.

Emotion management at work has a special name – emotional labor. As we move into a service sector economy, more and more livelihoods depend on selling not just your labor but also your emotions. Have you ever been to a restaurant and had to watch the poor workers (who I imagine were horribly run off their feet by that point) smile and sing to the birthday boy or girl? Ever been to Cold Stone Creamery? (Check out those dance moves!) Our emotions are commodities we place on the market to the highest bidder. And according to Hochshild, this can carry a cost.

If you spend your life forcing yourself to feel something you don’t feel, to pretend that you are happy when you are sad, or calm when you are angry – over time you may begin to feel cynical about your job. I mean, come on, did you watch that Cold Stone worker? Further, emotion work is hard. It’s not easy to constantly pretend or to alter your internal state. Overtime, you can burnout and end up leaving your job. Even worse. It is possible that all of this pretending and altering of your emotions may result in you feeling like you are inauthentic. Unable to truly experience your emotions because you spend so much time pretending that you can’t tell when the emotion is real.

But, even with the costs, emotion management is necessary. I didn’t tell that young man where I wanted to stick that gum wrapper, but I did laugh about it for about 30 minutes with a friend after we’d left the funeral. And when my own mom died, I learned that I’m not the only one in my family with this sickly sweet sense of humor. It’s good to know that we all have someone in our lives with whom we can break all social rules and express how we truly feel.

Dig Deeper

  1. Can you think of a time when feeling rules and display rules do not match? Is your example one of emotional management or does it qualify as emotional labor.
  2. Most of the examples we think of in terms of managing emotions are turning whatever we are thinking into positive emotions. Why do you think this is the case? Do you think the norm of happiness (or at least positive general emotion) is unique to the United States? Why do you think America stresses positive emotions to an extent other nations do not?
  3. Can you think of a time when your emotions did not meet the feeling rules or display rules for the situation you were in? What was the circumstances? What were you supposed to feel/display? Why was that feeling/display appropriate? What did you do?
  4. Have you ever been to restaurant where their theme is to be rude to the customers? What are the feeling rules in this situation? How do these rules vary from most other situations? What are your reactions to the results?
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