You’ve just suffered a crushing defeat after making what you thought was a great presentation to management. Methodical to a fault, you did your homework—and then some. Your slides were perfect, your Excel sheets were excellent, and you were impeccably groomed. But at the end of your 15 minutes of boardroom fame, those in the room exchanged glances that revealed their disappointment.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.
Editor: Talha Khalid
Embarrassment sweeps over you in waves, and although you manage to keep it together long enough to make it to the restroom, you can no longer contain your frustration and disappointment. The flood of tears begins, and there’s nothing you can do to hold it in check. It doesn’t matter, you think; you’re probably not going to have a job with the company for long anyhow.
As you start to put yourself back together, a senior employee walks in, takes one look at you, and shoots you a disapproving look. You were just regaining your composure and now you feel another wave of emotion swell up. Returning to your desk, you feel like everyone’s looking at you, and you sense disdain from the others in your work area.
Because emotions are a normal aspect of human behavior, it’s to be expected that they might create as much havoc at work as they can at home. However, because we’re expected to act professionally and objectively at work, we try to stifle our emotions, particularly those involving sadness. Even when you suffer a crushing disappointment, such as a failed presentation or worse, you’re expected to keep it together and not allow your human side to show through.
For women, the workplace may seem particularly constraining when it comes to expressing negative emotions. University of Zurich’s Guy Bodenmann and colleagues (2015) reported that in relationships, men shut down when their intimate partners show they’re upset. If you want your partner to feel your pain, it may be best not to show it.
Even so, others regard women as more emotional than men. According to the University of Amsterdam’s Agneta Fischer and Yale University’s Marianne LaFrance (2015), women are more likely to show their emotions on their faces, and therefore they're perceived as more emotional. These perceptions can become highly distorted: Observers in an experimental situation judged the image a woman with a computer-engineered, completely neutral facial expression to be sad. The same expression on a man's face led the same observers to perceive him as angry.
In an extensive review of previous studies, Fischer and LaFrance make the case that smiling and crying in women, in comparison to men, can be understood as reflecting gender norms or constraints presented by social roles in specific situations. We expect men and women to show different levels of emotions, interpret their emotions differently based on gender role expectations, and take into account the context as well as the degree of emotionality a person displays. The problem is when women start to believe in the validity of the stereotype. According to Fischer and LaFrance, “Stereotypes reflect descriptive norms but also generate prescriptive standards” (p. 23). A woman may believe she's more emotional because she's a woman, even when she's not.
The effect of gender expectations on emotional expression presents some interesting dilemmas. Men in positions of power somehow are permitted to show their tender side without being ridiculed or sent into media oblivion. In 1972, when presidential candidate Edmund Muskie shed a tear while on the primary circuit in New Hampshire, he was seen as weak, and his campaign came to a sudden halt. Today, it is more common to see teary-eyed males in virtually every sphere of public life. Television and the movies often portray men who are overwhelmed with sadness and cry freely in front of both male colleagues and female sympathizers.
The one remaining bastion of male stoicism, according to Fischer and LaFrance, is the workplace. As bad as it is for women to cry in front of co-workers, it's worse for men. The “powerless emotion” (p. 24) of crying creates problems for men because it conflicts with their expectation of being, and seeming, strong and objective while on the job.
Not being able to express your true emotions, or having your true emotional state misperceived, is not good for your mental health. According to the “dispositional affectivity” theory of work satisfaction (Ng and Sorensen, 2009), people who chronically experience negative emotions at work feel greater stress that, in turn, lowers their productivity. One of those sources of negative emotions may ironically be the inability to express emotions without fear of repercussion.
If we can change the culture of crying, perhaps there will come a time when, regardless of your gender, you'll be able to express your true feelings without fearing rejection of mislabeling.