A restless vitality wells up as we approach thirty.
— Gail Sheehy
Measuring experience against a normative model set up by doctors, people will be as troubled by departures from the norm as they are troubled by [Gail Sheehy’s] “predictable crises" themselves, against which medical norms are intended to provide reassurance.
— Christopher Lasch
Since feeling is a form of pre-action, a script or a moral stance toward it is one of culture’s most powerful tools for directing action.1 How do we sense these scripts or, as I shall call them, feeling rules? In this chapter we discuss the various ways in which all of us identify a feeling rule and the ways in which we discover that we are out of phase with it— ways which include noting the duration, strength, time, and placement of a feeling. We explore the areas of love, hate, grief, and jealousy, to which these private rules apply.
The purpose of this effort is to expose the outlines of a private emotion system. This system, as we saw in Chapter Three, involves emotion work (deep acting). Feeling rules are what guide emotion work by establishing the sense of entitlement or obligation that governs emotional exchanges. This emotion system works privately, often free of observation. It is a vital aspect of deep private bonds and also affords a way of talking about them. It is a way of describing how—as parents and children, wives and husbands, friends and lovers—we intervene in feelings in order to shape them.
What are feeling rules? How do we know they exist? How do they bear on deep acting? We may address these questions by focusing on the pinch between “what I do feel” and “what I should feel,” for at this spot we get our best view of emotional convention. The following snapshots of people caught in moments of emotional deviance, moments in which they stand naked of convention, are not exactly candid shots since people pose even in their confessions. But they are clear pictures of how people see their own actions in relation to emotional convention. And just as we may infer from conscious emotion work the possibility of unconscious forms of it, so we may infer the possibility of unconscious feeling rules, harder to get at but just as probably there.2
How do we recognize a feeling rule? We do so by inspecting how we assess our feelings, how other people assess our emotional display, and by sanctions issuing from ourselves and from them.3 Different social groups probably have special ways in which they recognize feeling rules and give rule reminders, and the rules themselves probably vary from group to group.4 On the whole, I would guess that women, Protestants, and middle-class people cultivate the habit of suppressing their own feelings more than men, Catholics, and lower-class people do. Our culture invites women, more than men, to focus on feeling rather than action; it invites Protestants into an inner dialogue with God, without benefit of church, sacrament, or confession as an intermediary structure; and it invites those in middle-class occupations to manage feeling in service jobs. To the extent that it does these things, the very ways in which we acknowledge feeling rules reflect where we stand on the social landscape. Indeed, the amount of interest people have in feeling rules and emotion work may tend to follow these social lines.
How do we recognize a rule reminder? We can experience it as a private mumbling to ourselves, the voice of a watchful chorus standing to the side of the main stage on which we act and feel  We also receive rule reminders from others who ask us to account for what we feel.5 A friend might ask, “Why do you feel depressed? You’ve just won the prize you’ve always wanted.” Such friends are generally silent when we feel as they expect us to, when events visibly explain our feeling. A call for account implies that emotional conventions are not in order and must be brought up to consciousness for repair—or, at least in the case of weak conventions, for a checkup. A wink or ironic tone of voice may change the spirit of a rule reminder. Such gestures add a meta-statement: “That’s the feeling rule, all right, but we’re disregarding it, aren’t we?” We are reminded of the rule by being asked to disregard it.
We also know feeling rules by the way others react to what they think we are feeling. These external reactions or “claims”—both as they are intended and as they are interpreted—vary in directness or strength. Some claims are both direct and strong: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” “You have no right to feel so jealous when we agreed to an open marriage.” “You ought to be grateful considering all I’ve done for you.” Other claims may be presented in the guise of questions, as in “Aren’t you just thrilled about Evelyn’s news?” Such a question may actually be meant and understood as a claim, a statement of what another expects. Such questions as “Hey, isn’t this fantastic music?” or “Isn’t this an incredible party?” remind us of what the world expects of the heart. Rule reminders also appear disguised as statements about what we supposedly do feel, as in “You’re just as pleased as punch, I know you are.”
Sanctions common on the social scene—cajoling, chiding, teasing, scolding, shunning—often come into play as forms of ridicule or encouragement that lightly correct feeling and adjust it to convention. Mainly it is the gentle, benign gesture that puts a feeling into line. For instance, one woman recalled: “When I got the news that my father had died, I found that I couldn’t cry over my loss. Everyone of course expected me to cry, and words such as ‘It’s okay to let go’ made me cry just by their suggesiveness.”6
Through the idea of “inappropriate affect,” psychiatrists have had a lot to say about feeling rules. For them, “inappropriate affect” means the absence of expected affect, and from it they infer that a patient is reacting to an event in an unexpected way. When a patient has “an idiosyncratic conceptualization of the event,” the psychiatrist will inspect the patient’s other experiences, especially childhood ones, in order to find something that might account for the feeling.7
What is taken for granted all along is that there are rules or norms according to which feelings may be judged appropriate to accompanying events.8 Like the rest of us, psychiatrists use cultural measures of appropriateness. We, like them, seek reasons for feelings that stand out as strange.
But the psychiatrist and the sociologist take different viewpoints on feelings that do not fit the conventions designed for them. We can get at this difference by comparing how a psychiatrist and a sociologist might analyze the following report by a recent bride:
My marriage ceremony was chaos, unreal, completely different than I imagined it would be. Unfortunately, we rehearsed at eight o’clock the morning of the wedding. I had imagined that everyone would know what to do, but they didn’t. That made me nervous. My sister didn’t help me get dressed or flatter me, and no one in the dressing room helped until I asked. I was depressed. I wanted to be so happy on our wedding day. I never ever dreamed how anyone could cry at their wedding. That’s the happiest day of one’s life. I couldn’t believe that some of my best friends couldn’t make it to my wedding. So I started out to the church with all these little things I always thought would not happen at my wedding going through my mind. I broke down —I cried going to the wedding. I thought, “Be happy for the friends, the relatives, the presents.” But I finally said in my mind, “Hey, people aren’t getting married, you are.” From down the long aisle we looked at each other’s eyes. His love for me changed my whole being from that point. When we joined arms I was relieved. The tension was gone. From then on, it was beautiful. It was indescribable.
A psychiatrist might respond to this roughly as follows: “On the face of it, the young woman seems anxious. In her anxiety, the rules seem overcathected (unduly important to her). The cause of her anxiety may lie in her ambivalence about marriage, which might be related to childhood impressions of her own parents’ marriage or perhaps to the sexual aspects of it. I would need to know more to say for sure.”
A sociologist would look at the wedding from quite another point of view. To begin with, he or she would consider the ceremony as a ritual event of significance to the assembled witnesses as well as to the bride and groom; attention would be paid to where various relatives and friends sat and how involved each person seemed to be. But the sociologist could also be concerned with what happened in the realm lying between feelings and the external events of the ritual—the realm of feeling rules and emotion management. In preparing for and participating in the wedding ritual, the bride assumes the right and obligation to experience a certain skew of vision and a certain elation. Rights and obligations also apply to her outward display of joy and radiance. Drawing on her understanding of the general rules for how brides should see and feel and seem, the bride makes herself
up. She acts like a bride. When everything goes well, she experiences a unity between the event (the wedding), the appropriate way to think about it (to take it seriously), and the proper way to feel about it (happy, elated, enhanced). When that happens, the ritual works.
But for the bride considered here, the ritual almost fails. As she sees it, she should feel beautiful but in fact she doesn’t. She should feel happy but in fact she feels depressed and upset. The “ought” of the feeling struggles with the “is.” Her notion of a bride’s-way-of-seeing a wedding and a bride’s-way-of-feeling about it is for a time unhinged from the factual role of bride and detached from the occasion of the wedding. What she imagined or hoped might be her experience of the wedding (“the happiest day of one’s life”) made her privately miserable.
Almost any emotional convention makes room for lapses and departures. Thus while the bride may aspire to feel central, beautiful, and happy at the supreme moment of marching down the aisle, she can usually also tolerate temporary anxiety or ambivalence and feel fine about that. In fact, some anxiety is prescribed, for it shows how seriously she takes marriage.
Sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to “be happy.” Precariously and for the moment, but without falseness, this seems to work; her emotion work leads into emotion. She probably thought little about how appropriate her feelings were at the time or about how her private feeling rules matched some publicly shared code. She simply disliked what she felt. She wanted to feel differently, as a private and individual matter. If she admitted to having feeling rules, she would probably say that she made them up herself; after all, it was her wedding. Yet in one sense, it was not her wedding. The throwing of rice is a medieval fertility rite, the wearing of white a Victorian addition, and the very idea of a father but not a mother giving away a daughter but not a son derives from Saxon times, when a father would sell his daughter for her labor. (Only after the Crusades, when women exceeded men in number, did the father come to “give her away.”) It was her wedding in the sense that it was her borrowings from culture, as well as her borrowings from public notions about what she should inwardly experience on such a day.9
To get the emotion-management perspective clear, we have ignored two other principles that organize social life. The first of these, considered primarily by psychiatrists, is pain avoidance. The bride may try to struggle out of her depression not because it is proper to be happy but because she wants to avoid the unspeakable ache of being depressed. The second principle, which Erving Goffman and other sociologists take as primary, is advantage seeking in the social arena. The bride may try to be happy in order to win the affection of her in-laws, to attract the envy of her unwed girl friends, or to provoke jealousy in a former suitor. As principles, avoiding pain and seeking advantage explain patterns of emotion management, but it is important to note that both operate within a context of feeling rules.
The virtue of the focus on feeling rules lies in the questions it opens up. How, for example, does a change in feeling rules change the way brides experience weddings? In a society in which there is a rising divorce rate and a growing sense of contingency about the idea of marital commitment, the bride may get inadvertent reminders from her friends to take a rather nonchalant attitude toward the ceremony and to behave more as she would at an informal party. If she has any feelings about the religious solemnity of the occasion, she may be asked to keep them to herself; and, indeed, if she is to indicate that she shares the feeling rules of her modern friends, she will have to try to express a certain degree of shame about experiencing her marriage in a more old-fashioned way. Even while pain avoidance and advantage seeking stick as fixed principles of emotional life, feeling rules can change.