Crying on the Job: When Anger turns to Tears
Why are women encouraged to "cry it out," but men are taught to "tough it out"?
Posted Sep 16, 2016
Have you ever felt anger or frustration on the job build up so quickly that actual tears were welling up just as fast? Did you ever feel tears prick your eyes when someone said something or did something that ticked you off and left you feeling powerless or “one down” in the situation?
Women have traditionally worn the nomenclature of the weaker sex or the gentler gender. Men are seldom taught to cry and women are encouraged from early years to “let it all out.” Women’s feelings may not be any more “sensitive” than that of their male counterparts, but they are given a lot more latitude to express their sadness, hurt, and vulnerability than men are allowed.
The other day, a co-worker mentioned that she and a male colleague had recently given a presentation about their department to a group of individuals from across her organization. A member of the audience questioned the pair about an aspect of their operation and the audience member let my co-worker’s male colleague off easy, but he hammered the female presenter with questions and contempt. She went on to share that she had been shocked at her own reaction to being questioned about her expertise – she felt her eyes well up with tears. She related to me, “I wasn’t sad about anything, I was flat out furious! But when I felt tears in my eyes, I was furious at myself – why do women cry when they are mad?”
Cry it Out or Tough it Out?
Research shows that women definitely cry more often and more easily than men. The reasons for this have been attributed to gender norms; gender differences in the intensity of emotions; and social roles and situational constraints (Fischer & LaFrance, 2015). So, basically cultural factors have created a setting in which women are able to “cry it out” whereas men are expected to “tough it out.”
What happens when women try to “tough it out” or stand their ground? Stereotypes of tough women are seldom flattering and typically downright insulting. This is likely a reaction to the unexpectedness of women standing up for themselves or letting themselves respond in anger in professional circumstances or in public settings. There was a recent study conducted that explored individuals’ abilities to assign the correct gender to images of peoples’ faces on which various emotions were displayed. The tests included faces expressing anger, happiness, fear, crying, or a neutral expression (Svengar, Fiamengo, Grundler, & Kardum, 2016). The researchers measured the speed at which the correct gender was assigned. Guess what? The only significant difference found was that correctly identifying angry females took longer than correctly identifying gender than any other task.
Angry Women: Why do they have to Hide?
It appears that the world is not primed to see anger in females. If the natural expression of anger is an expression that women are not supposed to show, how are they “supposed” to respond when someone makes them mad? Tears show up for a lot of us when we are incensed by an injustice or insult. Crying is clearly an “appropriate” response for women, as research shows that seem to be physiologically “programmed” to cry, not swear. When you don’t know how to effectively express a particular emotion, such as anger, finding a way to express the intensity of emotion is often found through the physical act of crying. Crying is cathartic and it shows up in moments of sublime joy, ecstasy, grief, sentimentality, and, especially for women, in righteous indignation and white hot anger. I think the majority of women have been comforted with a variation of the encouraging words, “Go ahead and cry it out; you’ll feel better after a good cry.” And it is pretty much true for most of us – even men can feel a sense of release and relief after a healthy bout of tears.
It can take generations for a culture to shift its standpoint on gender norms, unfortunately. The most recent societal shift in the acceptance of expanding gender norms for emotional expression seems to have given the “okay” to allow men to be vulnerable and risk expressing tender emotions. Unfortunately, it seems that we have yet to find the best way to educate females on how to express anger in healthy or effective ways. Women and their daughters are missing out significantly by being unprepared to use the energy that arises with anger in healthy and productive ways. If women are able to harness their anger and use it to fuel positive change, the world might be a more hospitable and equitable place for everyone.
Crying at work is still a professional taboo in the majority of settings. Research contends that professional women perceive a woman's tears at work as equivalent to an admission of weakness. Crying on the job is a catch-22; you’re weak if you tear up or break down, but a tyrant (or much worse) if you amp up and call out the ones who sparked your anger or indignation. Honestly, women shouldn’t “co-opt” tears and men shouldn’t “co-opt” anger. There’s room for all of us to express the full range of human emotions in appropriate ways in appropriate situations.
Fischer, A., & LaFrance, M. (2015). What drives the smile and the tear: Why women are more emotionally expressive than men. Emotion Review, 7(1), 22-29.
Svegar, D., Fiamengo, N., Grundler, M., & Kardum, I. (2016). The effects of facial expressions and tears on the speed of sex recognition. International Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/ijop.12256.