The politics of tears at work - The big no-no in the workplace

Let’s be honest, some women cry at work and so does the odd man. Why is it wrong to be human in the workplace, asks Rita de Brun.

Of all the things that can manifest in having a bad day at the office - effing up, losing a client, blowing a deal - none are as dreaded as having a tear or tears roll down your face. For some reason, this entirely natural response to stress, distress and even happiness is still widely perceived as the ultimate show of weakness.

Tim Hunt felt the backlash of this perception when he recently confided in delegates at a science conference: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls ... three things happen when they are in the lab ... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry,”

His words cast a dark shadow, grew wings, became the subject of an ocean of feminist ire on social media, and led to the Noble Prize-winning scientist having to resign from his job.

The resulting furore highlighted not only the problem of female stereotyping in the science world, but also the harsh truth that yes, women do seem to cry more often than men.

Former Nickleodeon executive, Anne Kreamer, cried at work when her boss criticised her. She later conducted a study as part of her book, It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The Workplace in which 41% of women polled said they had cried in the office compared with just 9% of men.

Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg is one of the few senior executives who sees crying at work as little more than emotion spilling into the office. In Lean In, Sandberg argued that ‘sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.’

“I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, but in today’s world, with a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense,” she said. “I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work”. She doesn’t think it suggests in any way that she is not in control.

Dr Stanislava Antonijevic-Elliott has never cried at work. Asked why, the cognitive psychologist and founder of MindScapesHealth replies: “I was lucky in that I never experienced intimidation in the workplace that might have made me cry.”

Yet she knows many organisations in which it ‘is deemed inappropriate, an indication that the crying person does not know what he/she is doing, an indication of weakness.’

“For that reason I think that if we can help it at all, crying is best avoided in the workplace as we have to stay professional in that space,” she says.

Dr Einas Elamin, a medical doctor at Tullamore’s Midland Regional Hospital is another who thinks it’s best avoided if possible: “Because I work in a stressful environment; one in which I can’t make mistakes, I take a few days off when I feel stressed, then come back relaxed.

"I try not to show stress at work, and I don’t cry there because I haven’t time to and because I think it’s best not to, as in so many workplaces it’s viewed as an unprofessional thing to do.”

Unprofessional it may be to some, but it’s also hugely common. Research into the crying habits of 5,000 people in 37 countries shows that while females cry between 30 and 64 times per year, men cry between six and 17 times.

The scientist behind that research is Dr Ad Vingerhoets, author of ‘Why humans weep. Unravelling the mysteries of tears’ and clinical psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

He says mens’ crying habits are influenced by learning early that crying may result in them being deemed ‘sissies’ by peers.

Other factors, in his view, include the more frequent exposure of women to emotional situations ‘such as tearjerker movies.’

Hormones also play a role, with testosterone possibly having an inhibiting influence on crying in men and prolactin, a hormone that females have in higher doses than males, conceivably having the opposite effect. Besides all of that, a female propensity to feeling helpless seems to be a key factor.

When faced with ‘certain emotional situations’ and conflict in general, women tend to react with feelings of helplessness which gives rise to what Dr Vingerhoets describes as ‘typical female powerless anger.’

In the professor’s opinion it is helplessness, not sadness that is the core feeling linked with crying and because women feel more helpless in emotional situations, they’re more likely than men to cry.

Other research of his on a group of psychotherapists however found that male psychotherapists were more likely to cry at work than women. He wants to extend that research to see if particular professionals are more open to expressing their feelings.

Author Sheila O’Flanagan once had a cry in the office in her former life as a stockbroker. “It happened when my vet called to say my cat needed to be put to sleep,” she says. “As it turned out, the guys were absolutely lovely and kind... But I doubt it would have been the same if I’d cried over a deal that had gone wrong.” 

Case study: Senator Jillian van Turnhout

The politics of tears at work - The big no-no in the workplace

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg (herself a professed workplace crier, in front of Mark Zuckerberg no less) wrote that ‘sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.’

She may be right, but in the experience of Senator Jillian van Turnhout (below), a male colleague’s overt concern with a female colleague’s emotional state may be less heartwarming than it appears.

“I have cried while speaking on the floor of the Seanad; now I’m not talking bawling my eyes out, just getting teary eyed,” she explains.

Asked for the triggers, she says: “Very occasionally the emotion and passion I feel for a subject are so strong they cause tears to be shed while I’m discussing the topic.”

But it is when she doesn’t shed tears and her fellow male senators think she might, that some male colleagues get into what she calls ‘the double okay,’ mode.

This takes the form of the gentleman – female colleagues never do this, she says - looking into her eyes and asking ‘Are you okay?’

“The feeling I get is that this is not being done out of any concern or empathy for me,” she says. “The aim is to see if I’m close to crying.

When I reply that I am okay , the follow-up is always the same: the colleague places a hand on my arm, leans closer, looks more intensely into my eyes and asks: “Are you sure you’re okay?”

As for why she feels the concern is inherently insincere, she replies: “It’s because the ‘Are you okays?’ come into play following what might have been a difficult encounter for me, and the question is never accompanied by expressions of support.”

While this overt show of concern is taking place, the senator says that in her head she repeats: ‘I can see through you.’


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