About Kim Tae Heung: Kim Tae Heung is the chief of the Emotional Labor Laboratory and the author of the book, The Truth of the Emotional Labor (2014). He has developed an official license for emotional labor management. As a pioneer in the field of emotional labor in Korea, he studies the power relationships inherent in the rigid hierarchy that characterizes Korean society, mainly focusing on an evolutionary psychological perspective. With his experience of being a Eul while working in the advertising industry, he is now devoting his second career to helping people overcome stress from emotional labor.
▲ Photo of Kim Tae Heung. PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHO EUN BYUL.
The recent controversies over irrationally rude behaviors of the powerful, or Gapjil, have raised the issue of emotional labor in Korea. Along with its hierarchical culture and the widely-known catchphrase, “The customer is king,” the labor intensity in the service sector is notorious. With more than 70 percent of workers working in the service industry, many Koreans are exposed to the perils of emotional labor. As the chief of the Emotional Labor Laboratory, Kim Tae Heung suggests some solutions for those at the mercy of emotional exploitation to keep their sanity at work.
For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, could you explain what emotional labor is?
Simply put, emotional labor refers to all kinds of emotional work, whenever workers are forced to suppress their feelings and are compelled to smile. People often compare it to acting, but it is not at all similar because acting is an act of sympathy. Emotional labor ignores an individual’s feelings and hurts them in real life. When American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild first coined the term in 1983, the initial definition was described in a more academic tone. However, I believe emotional labor is a matter of real life.
I heard you majored in geology and used to work in an advertising agency. What drove you to the field of emotional labor?
Unlike the luxurious image known to the public, advertising is a job of severe emotional labor. In order to overcome the stress I received from work, I tried various mind control programs and read a lot of books. I came across the term “emotional labor” six years ago and started studying about it. Before then, I did not even know that what I was suffering from was called emotional labor.
How is the emotional labor manager different from other psychiatrists in helping people cope with their traumas?
Kim Emotional labor managers prevent people from getting stressed out by providing new insights into the deep-seated culture of hierarchy in our society, while psychiatrists provide follow-up treatment to people who are suffering from mental illness. Emotional labor managers analyze the idea of hierarchy through the eyes of brain science and give explanations about people’s behaviors. Compared to existing mind control programs, which focus on individuals, emotional labor management is a socio-structural analysis of a society-wide problem.
Who is this profession designed for?
In general, lecturers who educate administrators in companies come to obtain the license. I would say there are only a few people who are considering emotional labor management as their sole profession. Teachers learn emotional labor management as a part of their profession. About 60 percent of my students are teachers, but there are quite a few ordinary people as well. They come to learn how to deal with personal emotional wounds. Workers who work in the service sector make up the majority in this case.
Which part of the job do you find most rewarding?
There was an incident when I met a hikikomori boy as a student. The wounds he received from his classmates and school made him lock himself in his room for years. However, as he studied the background of irrational behaviors of human beings, he realized that he was not the one to be blamed. Many mind control books or programs all preach, “Keep calm for three minutes,” or “Think positive,” as if it is the victims who need to change and have stronger minds. However, these kinds of mindless mantras only aggravate the situation even more. When I see people recovering from their wounds, I feel that I am doing the right thing.
▲ The Truth of Emotional Labor(2014). PROVIDED BY KYOBO BOOK
The sad contradiction of GabJil is that those who have been irrevocably damaged end up becoming the aggressors. Why do you think people who know the pain spread it to other people?
It is because they are desperate. People who are at the bottom of the hierarchy are constantly exposed to cortisol. Cortisol, widely known as the attacking hormone, is the root cause of all illnesses. In order to compensate for their emotional tolls, the victims try to trample upon other preys who are in a weaker position than themselves. To make things worse, the cutthroat competition and the winner-takes-all system of modern society have intensified the rigidity of the hierarchy, making relationships formed in such an environment even more strained.
If the hierarchical order is the result of animal instinct, how can we solve the problem of emotional labor?
Sadly, people who have been in a powerful position for a long time cannot be persuaded with reason since their brain structure has been rearranged to fit that of winners. Thus, tough penalties and severe sanctions should be in place to restrain such aggressive instincts. The tyranny of those power holders is backed by the belief that they are above the law. Nevertheless, if justice works in the right direction, they will not be able to act as they wish. In this regard, I suggest establishing laws that protect the rights of emotional laborers.
What are you aiming for as the trainer of emotional labor managers?
My goal is to share my understanding so that more people can avoid the pain I had to suffer as a powerless worker. Until now, 1,600 graduates have gone through my training, but I believe the impact is greater since most of them are giving lectures to company CEOs and administrators. In fact, I already feel the change in our society. When I first opened the laboratory, many criticized me for being anti-business. Now, the companies come to ask for more programs to educate their managers and administrators.