What’s wrong with tears at the workplace?

The stigma around tears is so deep-rooted that women with career aspirations hold back


Baby boys and girls cry the same amount, grown women outdo the men, by far. Photo: iStockphoto
Baby boys and girls cry the same amount, grown women outdo the men, by far. Photo: iStockphoto

Don’t you worry, I’m not about to cry.” When a successful woman professional says this to her trusted peers, you can’t help but wonder, “What’s wrong with tears?” It’s 2017, and people are no longer meant to apologize for being emotionally expressive. But the stigma around tears is so deep-rooted that women with career aspirations hold back.

I cry approximately twice a day—no “out of control” emotion, just the equivalent of a smile or a scowl for many others. Tears show up and pass by. And despite the frequent use of tissues, I would qualify as a “successful” professional. But I continue to be struck by how ashamed women are made to feel for “crying in the workplace”. 

This cultural condescension (around the world) towards tears in the workplace is, for biological and social reasons, a bigger issue for women. While baby boys and girls cry the same amount, grown women outdo the men, by far. Biologically, testosterone inhibits crying while prolactin (in women) promotes it. Anatomically, men have larger tear ducts which help contain their tears. And sociologically, while men are trained to stunt their emotional expressions and penalized for tears, women are certainly not discouraged, and might even be spurred on.

So what’s the main objection to tears in the workplace? 

Well, the stigma seems to be rooted in the belief that crying makes one unproductive. In fact, it is so deep-rooted that many strong women believe that there is no place for tears in the workplace because they demonstrate vulnerability and could suggest a lack of control.

I get that any overwhelming emotion is distracting—whether tears or anger. So “out of control” emotions of all kinds, which disrupt harmony and productivity, are off the discussion table. But the particular workplace taboo against even moderate human expression through tears drives one to ask: Does this perceived lack of productivity stem from women’s inability to work through the tears? And, do tears interfere any more than anger, frustration or aggression—the more comfortable expressions of emotion by men?

On the first question, there is a growing body of research to show that women’s productivity would be enhanced if they didn’t have to spend time and energy hiding their emotions. As Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, writes in Lean In: “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. 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.

A large body of anecdotal evidence demonstrates that tears are viewed with such disdain because men feel queasy around women colleagues who cry. In parallel, years of inhabiting a work environment built by men, for men, has made anger and aggression far more acceptable than the less familiar expression, tears; in fact, anger and aggression are often seen as indicators of passion towards the job or deep commitment towards organizational goals.

Interestingly, the men who do cry in professional settings are more likely to be seen as empathetic and expressive instead of “too emotional” or “unprofessional”. Those familiar with John Boehner, the 53rd speaker of the US House of Representatives, know that he cried ever so often. A quick Internet search throws up large numbers of articles debating why he cries publicly. In 2011, S. Allen Counter, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, US, wrote in an article titled “The Crying Man”: “While I have no reason to suspect that a medical condition is behind Congressman Boehner’s weeping, it turns out that there are indeed afflictions that can lead to crying. For example, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, a stroke, or other brain injury can all leave a patient more prone to crying. It’s a fascinating, if still deeply mysterious, corner of medicine.” 

Mercifully, in conclusion, he wrote: “Knowing that crying can have a physiological cause might, perhaps, generate a measure of sympathy for Boehner. But does there even need to be a medical explanation? What, really, is wrong with a man crying?”

The world seems to be changing for the better on this score. In conversations on leadership, there is a new appreciation for empathy as opposed to detachment, and for connectedness and vulnerability. There is growing evidence on how damaging it is to stunt emotional expression in boys. And gender-awareness work is creating an opportunity for parents to bring up expressive boys. A 2016 survey commissioned by TV network Universal Channel suggests that men today are twice as likely to cry in public as their fathers. In a world such as this, shouldn’t we also be teaching grown men to get more comfortable with tears? 

As I peek into the world of the future, where, I trust, stereotypes will be regarded with suspicion and men and women will inhabit the workplace in more equal measure, tears will be as normal as being annoyed or aggressive…and we’ll no longer have to ask, “What’s wrong with tears?”

Anuradha Das Mathur is Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016 and founding dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women.

More From Livemint