A few weeks ago, an article appeared in my LinkedIn feed that asked “Is crying acceptable in the workplace?’ I’ll save you the click thru: the short answer in this piece is no. While emotion is a part of life, the article concludes it isn’t rewarded in the workplace because it suggests weakness. A quick reading of the comments revealed that many people agree—or accept that crying isn’t always looked upon favorably in the workplace.
Crying is most readily linked to grief, sadness, anger, fear and pain (1). Children can also cry to attract attention, but this behavior is discouraged almost as quickly as it begins. There are, then, socially-determined contexts when crying is acceptable, and when it is not—given the same situation, both utter despair and stoicism may be appropriate. We begin to learn when and where we can cry as children: it’s okay to cry (though not for very long) if we fall and scrape our knees, but crying out of frustration and anger are discouraged. And it’s expected that repeated events reduce that degree of a response. For example, on the first day of preschool teachers and parents may have tolerated sobs and sniffles, but by the third day or so, you may have been told to that you were a big boy or girl and that big boys and girls don’t cry.
This seems to happen more frequently with boys (1). Early work done by Balswick and Peek (1974) and Parsons (1951) have explored at length the ways in which masculinity is taught as instrumental moreso than expressive. Not only are boys told that “big” boys don’t cry, but that they must be “brave” and “strong” to the extent that those expressions are in opposition to weakness, sensitivity, emotionalism, and loss of control. Ross and Mirowsky (1984) found that men who hold traditional views about gender roles are less likely to cry (this data is self reported). They also note that as education and income increase, men are also less likely to cry even though they are also likely to hold less traditional views about gender roles (2). Ross and Mirowsky report that this is because they have less reason to be unhappy and more means to seek help for depression:
Sadness is the primary affective component of depression and depression is negatively related to men’s socioeconomic status, especially income. Thus men in the higher social classes may be more likely to cry when sad, but are less likely to be sad. Men in the lower social classes are more likely to be sad, but less likely to cry when sad (3).
Femininity has greater flexibility in expressing emotions, but even within this gender, crying is still not encouraged as a public display. But it’s also made private precisely because it’s gendered: Traditional gender roles place the feminine role within the private sphere such as the home, while the masculine role occupies a more prominent, public space.
By the time you’re “big,” there are few occasions when it’s okay to cry. And the workplace, as a public space that has long been a masculine space, becomes a very emotionally prohibitive space. Crying requires a response from others; it disrupts their experience of the shared space and challenges their roles within that space. Crying requires that the event be acknowledged and that some form of comfort be distributed. In the hierarchy of the workplace,these responses present uncomfortable challenges that we’re ill equipped to manage.
As much as views on gender roles may shift, the formula for success in the workplace and the boundaries of the relationships in this space seem rather cemented. So while there is greater recognition of the individual as an individual within this space, the parameters for acceptable behaviors aren’t likely to change.