There's an entire Reddit thread dedicated to whether or not crying at work is ever even appropriate. But getting emotional on the job happens sometimes, and employers and colleagues seldom know how to handle it. Especially when the one crying is a woman.
Women are often criticized for crying at work, but when men show anger — their form of emotional expression — it’s deemed a display of power. But why?
Professor Kimberly Elsbach of the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, has been examining workplace behavior for more than a decade. Most recently, teamed up with Beth Bechky of the Stern School of Business at New York University, she found that the bias women face is the result of a complex interplay of unspoken social scripts.
Adult crying appears to demand attention in social contexts, they exlain in their research, making it "salient and memorable." Thus, when a professional women cries, it is likely to influence perceptions that affect her long-term career trajectories. But understanding these perceptions may be useful in managing the careers of female criers.
Their research, “How Observers Assess Women Who Cry in Professional Work Contexts,” was published by the Academy of Management Discoveries. In it, they unwrap four stressful situations at work that commonly induce crying: personal issues, responses to feedback, daily work stress and heated office meetings.
And crying in these situation can be okay, they suggest, so long as women adhere to those aforementioned social scripts — the preconceived notions of what their supervisors and colleagues expect from them. Otherwise, they risk being labeled emotion, weak, unprofessional or even manipulative, which can ruin their careers.
"Specifically, we found that script violation by the crier led observers to make dispositional attributions of criers (i.e., that they were weak, unprofessional, and/or manipulative), while script confirmation led them to make situational attributions of criers (i.e., that they were experiencing a tough situation at work, or personal issues at home)," the researchers write. "Interestingly, assessments of the underlying emotions experienced by the crier did not appear to influence observers’ attributions of those criers."
Meanwhile, rather than crying, men often express strong emotions by raising their voices and pounding on tables.
“So when you see Harvey Weinstein, who’s widely known to be a bully, yelling at someone, that behavior may actually give him status,” Elsbach writes, noting that that’s because the behavior is aligned with the social script — it’s expected of men in power. “There’s no reason why it should give men stature. We make specific attributions of behaviors because we have learned to over time. And these are so hard to undo. It will take generations and generations to unravel.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.