A range of workers are regularly tasked with managing negative emotions. Existing literature points to several strategies for doing so, but tends to focus on organizational settings characterized by clear and consistent feeling rules. Using observational and interview data from high-mortality pediatric hospital wards in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, I find that nurses in settings with complex and contradictory emotional cultures often struggle to adhere to dominant feeling rules. In particular, during life-threatening situations, nurses frequently and publicly express anger and frustration toward their patients’ parents or caregivers, in direct contravention of the feeling rules that the nurses adamantly assert. When nurses are able to construct or discover small opportunities for protected, private space—in a setting where such backstage space is extremely limited—they successfully reconcile the complexities of the emotional culture, adhere to the dominant feeling rules, and deliver the professional, compassionate care they aspire to provide. Spatial strategies for emotional management are therefore an important resource in this setting. My findings advance theory on emotion management and the role of space and place in social life, and contribute to a growing literature on the abuse and neglect of patients by health workers.
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