When I was in boarding school we had a housemother named Miss Mallon. She was sofanatically religious she would tell children that their parents would go to hell. Because of this and other things, she was fired. All the girls in my dorm cried and carried on when they heard the news. I was supposed to feel a sense of great loss and sadness. Actually, 1 felt great joy and liberation. But I pretended to be as unhappy as everyone else. By secretly looking up at a bright light, I was able to make tears and some appropriate sobbing noises. Later on, when I was alone on the playground, / ran around and jumped for joy.

— Woman university student

All of us try to feel, and pretend to feel, but we seldom do so alone. Most often we do it when we exchange gestures or signs of feeling with others. Taken together, emotion work, feeling rules, and interpersonal exchange make up our pri­vate emotional system. We bow to each other not only from the waist but from the heart. Feeling rules set out what is owed in gestures of exchange between people. They enable us to assess the worth of an outward tear or an inward at­tempt to feel sad for the Miss Mallons in our lives. Looking at a bright light to make a tear glisten is a mark of homage, a way of paying respects to those who proclaim that sadness is owed. More generally, it is a way of paying respects to a rule about respect paying.

In psychological “bowing,” feeling rules provide a baseline

for exchange. There are two types of exchange — straight and improvisational. In straight exchange, we simply use rules to make an inward bow; we do not play with them. In improvisa­tional exchange, as in improvisational music, we presuppose the rules and play with them, creating irony and humor. But in both types, it is within the context of feeling rules that we make our exchanges and settle our accounts.

Consider the following straight exchange, discussed by Pe­ter Blau. A novice worker in a Social Security office tries to get advice from a more experienced worker, an “expert.” Blau comments:

The giving of advice was an exchange in which the ordinary worker paid for advice by acknowledging his inferiority to the expert, while the expert received ego-enhancing deference in return for the time he lost from his own work in helping his colleague. Both profited. But beyond a certain point, further sa­crifices of the expert’s time would become more costly to him than the initial sacrifices because his own work would begin to suffer, and further acknowledgments of his superiority would become less rewarding than the initial ones. He would then be­come unwilling to give more advice unless the deference and gratitude became more and more extreme. In short, it would raise the price.1

The advice seeker owes gratitude to the adviser. But what does it mean to owe gratitude? What, exactly, is felt to be owed?

What seems to be owed is “sincere display”—a nod of the head, an open smile, a slightly sustained gaze, and the words, “Thanks, Charlie, I sure appreciate it. I know how busy you are.” Payment is made in facial expression, choice of words, and tone of voice.

A person may offer his adviser only an impersonation of a sincerely grateful person, or he may actually think and feel in a grateful way, thus paying his debt in gold rather than silver. Similarly, the adviser may feel: “I deserve sincere gratitude, not simply feigning.”

When a giver and a receiver share an expectation about how much sincerity is owed, gestures can be judged as paying less or more than what is owed. Thus, when the receiver of a favor responds less generously than expected, the giver might openly say, “So that’s all the thanks I get?” Or he might respond to the thanks in a cold and resentful manner, which indicates that he is rejecting the thanks and considers the other party still in his debt. Alternatively, the giver may offer more, as when he discounts the very need for a thanks by redefining the gift as a voluntary act of pleasure: “Oh no, there’s nothing to thank me for. It was a pleasure to read your manuscript.” The sincerity of such a statement, and perhaps the effort needed to sustain it, is a gift in addition to the gift. It is the gift of not seeing the first gift as something to feel grate­ful for at all because that is just the kind of nice person the giver is.

How much in the way of displaying sincerity or of working to feel truly sincere (and working, too, at hiding the effort) seems right to us depends on the depth of the bond in ques­tion. In trivial exchanges, when no deep bond exists, less debt is passed back and forth, and the range of qualities, actions, and things that are given and received is reduced. In the case of deeper bonds—as between wife and husband, or between lovers, or between best friends—there are many more ways available to repay a debt; emotion work is only one of them.

Most of the time, gratitude comes naturally, thoughtlessly, and without effort. Only when it comes hard do we recognize what has been true all along: that we keep a mental ledger with “owed” and “received” columns for gratitude, love, an­ger, guilt, and other feelings. Normally, we are unaware of this; indeed, the very idea of consciously keeping such a ledger is repellent. Yet moments of “inappropriate feeling” may often be traced to a latent prior notion of what had been felt all along to be owed or owing. Often, feeling rules are unshared. “Poor communication” and misunderstanding sometimes boils down to conflicting notions about what feel­ings are owed to another. It is psychologically analogous to disagreeing on the exchange rate of dollars to pesos. A hus­band, for example, may latently feel that he is owed more gratitude for sharing housework than his wife gives him and more gratitude than he gives her for doing the same thing.

In straight exchange, the focus is on making a gesture to­ward observing a rule, not on the rule itself. In improvisa – tional exchange, the rule itself is called into question or played with. Consider the following exchange, observed at the San Francisco International Airport.

Two airline ticket agents are working behind the counter; one is experienced, the other is new on the job. The new agent is faced with a difficult ticket: it needs to be reissued for a different date and at a lower fare, with the extra money already paid to be credited to an air travel card. His experi­enced companion and instructor is gone. He struggles with the ticket for ten minutes while a long line of people wait their turn, shifting position restlessly and staring intently at him. When the experienced agent returns, the novice says, “I was looking for you. You’re supposed to be my instructor.” The instructor answers ironically, “Gee, I’m really sorry, I feel so bad,” and both laugh together.

The experienced agent is not sorry that he wasn’t available to help the novice. His apparently misfitting feeling does not put him in debt, however, because the more general feeling rule—“We should both take this seriously”—is poked fun at. His meaning seems to be this: “Don’t take it personally that I didn’t feel guilty or regretful about my late return. Neither of us really wants to be here because it’s an awful job, and you understand how I appreciate that ten-minute break.”

Irony is composed of just such playing with perspectives— now mine, now yours, now the company’s. It is the jazz of hu­man exchange. As in improvisational music, in order to play with some perspectives, others have to be fundamentally un­derstood and occasionally acknowledged. This is why humor and irony are often reserved for later stages of an acquaint­anceship because they acknowledge a deep bond that can be played with.

Sometimes improvisational exchanges themselves become crystallized into custom. A graduate student of mine from Korea once gave me two masks with wildly happy eyes and broad smiles. These masks, she explained, were used by Ko­rean peasants when confronting their landlord on specified occasions; holding the smiling masks over their faces, they were free to hurl insults and bitter complaints at him. The masks paid the emotional respects due the landlord and left the peasants free to say and feel what they liked.