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The Expressive Trap

"Why don't men express their feelings?"


During a gender communication seminar, one woman raised her hand.

"Do men feel?" she asked.

The audience burst out laughing. The question was obviously a joke, but the underlying message was not. Of course men have emotions. But what the woman meant was, "Why don't men express their feelings?"

Well, they do. Men just express their feelings differently. First of all, they have more control over their facial expressions, where most feelings are communicated. They have emotional control reflected by a neutral expression or by masking facial expressions. Women are what experts call high-expressers and externalizers, whereas men are low-expressers and internalizers. Men can substitute, neutralize or minimize their emotional expression through facial expressions. In contrast, women are an "open book." In corporate American this can have its disadvantages.

Feelings: His and Hers

Society conditions women to think they are the emotional gender. Women are taught a separate set of rules that allow a wider range of self-expression. Women aren't as good at hiding their facial expressions; you can often read them like a book (helpful when women say they're "fine" but feel the opposite). With men, it's more of a guessing game.

Self-expression isn't purely learned. The different brains are also at work. According to Morgan Road in her book The Female Brain, "The areas of the brain that track emotion are larger and more sensitive in the female brain." Men notice subtle signs of sadness in a face only 40 percent of the time, whereas women pick up on the signs 90 percent of the time, Road says.

Imagine how life would be if we lost our ability to express our emotions. A man in the same gender communication seminar said, "Work would be less messy if people could just leave their feelings and emotions on the sidewalk before they came into work." Which is true? An emotionless workplace would be free of fear, boredom, frustration, and hurt feelings. But this pain-free existence would have a trade-off. We'd also forfeit happiness, joy, enthusiasm, and pride major motivators and rewards.

An emotionless workplace is a dull workplace. The office would not be ignited by passion and joy. People would become bored. The office atmosphere would be over-run with monotony. When you are expressive, people also know where you stand. This, in turn, increases their comfort level and feeling of familiarity. We are always suspect of the people we can't seem to get to know. They won't let us in, so what are they hiding?

The Ten Commandments of Masculinity

One of the Ten Commandments of masculinity is "Thou shall not feel." This kind of mind-heart disconnect begins when boys are in the early years of elementary school. You'll see kindergarten and first-grade boys bringing stuffed animals from home to comfort them amid their fear of the social demands of school. They'll even hold hands and put their arms around other boys and girls to show affection and express joy. By second grade, male indoctrination begins. Boys are sissies if they show fear, pain or heaven forbid the most taboo expression of all: crying.

For girls, that shift never really happens. Girls have the license to continue a full range of emotional expressions that is, except for one: anger. Girls get angry, of course, but it is taboo for them to express it. It is not feminine to get or express anger. This is a commandment that has caused women a world of grief into their adult lives. Ironically, anger is one of the few acceptable emotions sanctioned for boys and men to publicly express.

In my book, You Don't Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication between the Sexes, Audrey cites an example of display rules for boys.

When her son Armand was 10 years old, she popped by his elementary school midday during recess to give him an antibiotic for his ear infection. He wasn't expecting her. First, she bumped into his pals and asked if they knew where he was. Right then, he walked around the corner and was surprised to see her so surprised and happy, in fact, that he jumped up into her arms and wrapped his legs around her.

Then Audrey noticed his friends' reactions. They looked at each other, rolling their eyes and poking each other in disapproval of this public display of affection.

"Gosh, Armand," one of the boys said. "Get a hold of yourself."

Now let's fast forward to the workplace. Do public displays have a place in the boardroom? Of course and they do every day. But the continuum of control differs for men and women. Women and men both walk a fine line. He must maintain control for credibility. No leader breaks down, right? And she is forever at risk of being perceived as if the intensity of her expression is intimately linked to her hormonal cycle. There remains a problem of how her expression of emotions is perceived; a double standard still exists from the boardroom to the bedroom.

Adapted from Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (Alpha Books-Penguin, 2009).

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