I originally wrote this post in 2016. It’s become one of the most-read pieces on my now-defunct freelancer blog, and it did not deserve to pass into oblivion.
Reading this week has been all about emotional labor for me, starting with this piece by Jess Zimmerman at The Toast and continuing with this huge MetaFilter thread (which I am still reading, over a thousand comments in). In both conversations, one suggested solution to the problem of disproportionately heaping uncompensated emotional labor onto one party in a relationship is to monetize it – to put in economic terms exactly what this work is worth.
This comment on MeFi by Meeks Ormand in particular got me thinking:
I’ve realized in reading this thread that I’ve had my own vocabulary and way of thinking about this for some time. Simply put, good will is a commodity and a perishable one at that. Every time you ask for a favor or someone’s time, you are spending it. Doing favors or giving someone your time accrues it. This helped me understand why I don’t always want a particular persons help, I don’t want to owe them good will. It’s perishable because what have you done for me lately is a legitimate question. Just because you did that one thing that one time however many years ago doesn’t mean you are still entitled to whatever good will was accrued. Ill will is a separate but related thing that is much more shelf stable, earned from being some flavor of jerk, though you also spend good will to get it.
I’ve been struggling for some time with a particularly draining relationship in my life. It’s not so much that I don’t give a fuck about this person as it is that I no longer have any fucks left to give.
Put another way: this person’s account with the Bank of Fucks is overdrawn.
If we treat emotional labor and its close counterpart “good will” as currency, then we can explore its movement within the economy of our relationships. Introducing yourself and getting to know me opens your account with my Bank of Fucks. Performing emotional labor to my benefit deposits good will into your Bank of Fucks account; demanding emotional labor from me withdraws it. If your demands greatly exceed your deposits, your account runs out of currency, and I run out of fucks to give.
Attempting to offer emotional labor without introducing yourself and getting to know me first is weird; it’s like trying to make a deposit without opening an account (and it immediately makes people think the currency in question is counterfeit). Demanding withdrawal after withdrawal without making deposits makes the question “what have you done for me lately?” as legitimate as the question “but when have you deposited enough cash to cover this withdrawal?” The words “fuck you” become analogous to the words “transaction denied – insufficient funds” (long recognized as the middle finger of checking accounts everywhere).
It also works to explain why a person will go to absurd lengths for some people but not others. Namely, some people have better standing with the Bank of Fucks than others, whether or not they have earned it. “But s/he’s your faaaamily!” is the emotional-labor version of “but s/he’s a shareholder!” – “this is a person who bought in on the ground floor and therefore we are going to comp them even though their account is overdrawn.”
Thing is, “comping” people doesn’t work forever, even for “shareholders.” Eventually, the Bank of Fucks becomes unstable; its reserves drop too low to cover withdrawals even from account-holders who have been making regular deposits. You start crying during It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey parcels out his honeymoon budget a dollar at a time to keep the S&L afloat over the weekend. Because you know how it feels to portion out your fucks, one fuck at a time, to people whom you know deserve more because they’ve given you more, you just can’t give it. It feels like burnout.
The surprising thing about a Bank of Fucks account is that it is remarkably easy to pay into. Take, for example, teaching. As teachers, we expend a bountiful quantity of fucks on our students. Transmitting knowledge is pennies compared to the work we spend making things readable, accessible, approachable, absorbable – the amount of time we spend putting ourselves in our students’ shoes to help them get it. One would think that our students’ accounts would dip into negative balances in the first week.
But they usually don’t. Any student can, and many do, maintain positive balances throughout the semester simply by doing two things: showing up and trying their best. That’s it. That’s all the paying in that has to be done. It doesn’t even have to be directed at us, specifically as individuals, as long as it’s directed at our efforts generally.
There are, of course, students who run negative balances. We all know who they are. There’s always someone who feels it necessary to send repeated emails whose questions are obviously answered in the syllabus, skip class and then demand personal tutoring, or whinge that it’s not faaaair they took a points hit for missing a deadline that all their classmates managed to meet. “Do my emotional labor for me,” is the gist of all of these good-will-draining communications. “I never carry fucks. Cover me.”
….Why should I? Pay your own bill.
What to do when someone comes knocking, trying to make further withdrawals from an overdrawn account? What to do when a shareholder demands to be comped further, despite having overdrawn their account some twenty years ago, because “faaamily”?
The answer, of course, depends on the relationship. The risk – because the demand – is that you will expend further emotional labor, gambling it on the infinitesimal chance that this person will finally start doing their own damn emotional labor. This is where the Bank of Fucks analogy can be very useful in personal relationships. If a family member who owed you tens of thousands of dollars showed up asking for another fifty bucks, would you gamble it on the chance that this time they’ll pay their tab? It’s worth asking.
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