There’s no crying in academia!

Over at Am I a woman scientist? I ran across this post discussing crying in the workplace. I’d never given much consideration to the issue previously, but there are several thought-provoking posts and articles on the topic.

First, let me take a step back to a post Am I a woman scientist? linked to, here at A Natural Scientist musing about crying as a sign of weakness in women. From there, a link goes back to this Chronicle story describing the aftermath of a miscarriage, and the author’s inability to discuss it with anyone at work for fear of breaking down and crying.

Some interesting themes emerged from these posts. First, and probably fairly obvious, is the fear of crying in front of colleagues (and particularly male colleagues), for fear of being perceived as weak or unprofessional:

Consultations with close friends assured me that the chairwoman of my review committee would understand the circumstances. Nonetheless, I wimped out. I told her that I needed another week because of “some family problems.”

I just could not face having to tell her about the miscarriage — a conversation that I knew I could not have without crying — in the midst of working so hard to present myself as a confident teacher and developing scholar. It was just too much to balance.

In the end, that was the simplest reason that I did not say anything about my miscarriage: I could not talk about the loss without crying. And justified or not, I could not get past the thought that women who cry at work cannot easily, in the next breath (or on the next page), describe themselves as competent professionals.

This is echoed at “A Natural Scientist,” who broke down crying in front of her mentor:

So we were talking about the need to be tough and on guard all the time, and I said, ‘It’s just been really hard…’ and burst dramatically into tears.

Of course she was wonderful about it.

But here’s the thing: I could not under any circumstances cry in front of my advisor, or any of the male professors; they would never take me seriously again. This is true of some of the female professors, but on the whole, I would expect it to be less career-destroying.

There have been 3 times when I had to break some important, but potentially career-damaging, news to an advisor, and (barely) managed to get through all them without crying. Twice was with my advisor in graduate school–letting him know (both times) when I was pregnant. You might think the second time would have been easier, but that one was actually more difficult because he’d been very good with the first pregnancy and I felt, by having another child, I might be pushing the limits of his patience a bit. But he was still very good about it, causing me to cry with some relief after I was alone.

The other time was more recently, telling my mentor and my chairman about my impending divorce (which, although I’ve not discussed here, may be the subject of a future post). Again, both were very supportive, but it was just a very stressful and emotional thing to discuss, and it took a *lot* of effort to keep the tears from coming–not necessarily because I was sad, as I’d already been separated for many months and much of the hard stuff was already over, but just because there was so much stress and worry involved with discussing it with anyone, no matter how superficial.

This brings me to the second theme running through these articles, which are the reasons *why* women cry. Am I a woman scientist? discusses this in her post:

Not being a man, I actually don’t know what their general assumption is on the reason for crying, but in my experience, women crying in front of men in the workplace is less likely to be due to “weakness” or sadness and more likely due to anger or frustration.

I have cried once in a professional setting, and come close to crying twice. All three times, it was a stress release, because I was quite close to punching someone in the mouth.

This theme is echoed in the comments to both her post and on Jenny Scientist’s post at “A Natural Scientist:” crying as a response to anger, stress, and frustration:

… I was angry, frustrated, completely stressed…

…I completely lost it, I was so frustrated…

…the one time I *almost* cried in front of my advisor, it was because I was mad enough to spit nails, worried about my project, and at the end of my rope!…

…I have cried twice at work, and both times were out of frustration. And like you, it was because I couldn’t take it anymore—I just felt like “these people are really NOT LISTENING to me and nothing I am doing is changing that”…

… I am also an academic and have cried at work once (in front of my chair) and that was in complete fury…

Several of the commenters also mentioned that the thought of crying in front of a man is generally much worse than in front of a woman:

I think one problem is that many men don’t know how to interpret tears – they think it’s something about sadness, grief, hormones, or general un-hingedness, and not ANGER or FRUSTRATION. If only I knew how to stopper up the tears and start yelling instead…

This may be partly because of what one commenter mentioned: the stereotype of the weepy, manipulative woman who turns on the waterworks to get her way, especially with men. Perhaps tears are less likely to work with another woman, and so we feel more comfortable crying in front of them and fear less that they’ll think we are trying to manipulate them.

Additionally, as Jenny points out, the structure of the workplace also goes against these types of expression of emotion:

The problem is, this is a structure which fundamentally discriminates against women. First we’re socialized to believe crying is okay, and then we’re penalized for it. Even if it’s women who are applying this paradigm, they are still guided by a norm which was not established by women.

I don’t have any answers here, alas. I do think it’s a problem that these displays of emotion are looked upon so poorly and feared by so many, especially with stories like Eleanor’s, where she was too afraid to even mention her miscarriage because she thought she’d break down and cry when discussing it. Academia (and other high-pressure, high-stress jobs) is enough of a pressure cooker as it is; punishment shouldn’t be feared when we release some of that steam in a healthy way.

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  1. Oh man, once I start crying, look out. It’s like an avalanche–unstoppable. I wish they could harnass that energy.

    And when I’m premenstral, everyone better just get out of my way!

    Usually, if I can, I head for the bathroom (or some other deserted place) and lose it. The good(?) thing is it doesn’t last long, and I’ve rebounded like a raquetball.

  2. As a guy, I don’t view a woman crying in the workplace as a sign of weakness. It is difficult to know how to respond though. Sometimes a hug is ok (depending on who it is and how well you know them), but other times I’m not sure whether to say “there, there” or to look the other way and pretend that it’s not happening.

    Manipulating tears – now that’s another thing altogether!

    I don’t imagine that I’ll be the only one to express sorrow for you over your divorce. It’s never easy. Arohanui.

  3. Crying anywhere in public, especially in the workplace, is generally considered unacceptable. Now, maybe that norm should change, but until it does, there’s no reason to single out academia for not allowing women (and men!) to cry publicly.

  4. Yes, the workplace is a difficult setting for strong emotion to be expressed, and more so for women than men. From talking with female friends about it, I’ve gotten the concensus expressed above: that it’s often an expression of great frustration.

    There are indeed no easy answers, except to be aware of one’s coworkers (of both sexes) as human, with the same weaknesses, strengths and needs as oneself. Given situations will vary as widely as the individuals involved, but generally it seems best to let the release of emotion run its course. Then one can ask if help / support is needed, or even desired.

  5. That’s true, certainly academia isn’t alone, and I noted that what holds there is true of many other types of jobs. However, IMO it has the potential for worse consequences in fields where women need to show more typically “masculine” qualities to advance, including academia.

  6. I think it is interesting that most of these discussions have only seemed to admit the possibility that women would need to cry in the workplace. If there are detrimental consequences for women who are unable to show the requisite ‘masculine’ qualities by not crying, imagine what it is like for a man who breaks down, showing perhaps in some eyes that he is all too ‘feminine’ to be taken seriously.

    I once cried in front of a professor in the department where I am a grad student. A relationship I had with a fellow graduate student had broken down, and she had asked her supervisor to talk to me. ‘Awkward’ does not even begin to describe the situation, but it only got worse when I was unable to contain myself and broke down in heaving sobs. He (the professor) and I have difficulty maintaining eye contact around the department these days. It is a good thing he is in a vastly different field from me, and never told anyone as far as I know.

  7. Not being a female I cannot quite sympathyse with you on a) how you get treated and b) what it might take to make you cry.

    But I can certainly comprehend how emotional one can get with the state of ones PhD or as Tara mentioned telling your supervisor about how you project will be set back by first one and then a second pregnancy.

    Although I must admit that again not me being pregnant it is not quite the same scale of effect on my research as it would have been for you Tara – very well done on the that front for getting both the family and the phd done.

  8. I worked mainly with women for 17 years as a travel agent before I returned to school. I have never thought of anyone, man or woman, as weak for crying. I seen a clot of crying in the workplace, in frustration, anger, fear and loss and it was almost always caused by some jerk of a guy.

  9. If there are detrimental consequences for women who are unable to show the requisite ‘masculine’ qualities by not crying, imagine what it is like for a man who breaks down, showing perhaps in some eyes that he is all too ‘feminine’ to be taken seriously.

    Definitely, and that was also touched on in a few of the posts and comments I linked to. It just seems that few men want to even touch this topic with a ten foot pole, so because the women are the ones leading the discussion (and because it’s more typically considered a female issue), obviously it revolves around us. But just as with all the family issues that center around women but involve men as well, more help from “your” side of the aisle would always be appreciated.

  10. I don’t have any experience with people crying in the workplace, but I can imagine that I would see it as a weakness if the crying was related to work. I can understand family issues or even social issues at work turning someone into an emotional wreck—hey it’s happened to me before—but to be turned into an emotional wreck by your work itself does not sound like a good thing to me.

  11. As someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, I’ve had several experiences flying into episodes at work. Constantly having to swallow tears when I couldn’t think of anything but what a worthless, lonely, piece of shit forlorn asshole I was. Seriously wanting to hurt myself, coming close to smashing a glass against a table in my hand. Having people know something is going on due to flushed, emotionless face and slurred speech due to fatigue, but only getting more nervous as you try harder to hide it. It’s not fun.

    Not exactly analogous to healthy people, but I can sympathize with the problem.

  12. One of the problems for guys is that we have very little clue about how to react to crying. Do we hug, offer tissues, wait it out, and how do we tell, and with whom? We often don’t have that deeper connection with our coworkers that allows us to know where the line is.

    My sympathies, Tara, on your divorce situation. No matter how well you’ve resolved it, and even knowing that it’s the best course, it must still be wrenching.

  13. My wife has struggled in the past with keeping her emotions in check at work – in fact, it was implied that it was “reason” that she was passed over for a promotion recently. (The feeling being that executives can’t cry at work or something silly like that.) While I’ve never had that issue myself, I also have the luxury(?) of an office with no windows so if I wanted to let go I probably could. 😉

  14. It seems to me like any massive display of emotion, no matter the expression, is frowned on in most North American settings. If you throw a chair because you are frustrated or yell and scream or break into tears it gets coded as inappropriate unprofessional behaviour. Whether this reflects an idea that professionals in any field are going to experience stress and should be able to handle this cooly and logically or a broader North American discomfort with emotional expression isn’t clear to me.

  15. In my wife’s work crying is far more common than mine. Probably that due to the culture…she works in nursing, a predominantly female profession, and I in marine science, a predominantly (though less so) male profession. I’ve never encountered a teary person at work or been driven to tears myself (at least not at work), though I have been driven by frustration to cursing under my breath. I’m not sure what I’d do if I encountered such a situation, it would surely be awkward, …some of the old guard would no doubt head for the nearest female to attend to the situation…but I know I wouldn’t hold it against the crier as unprofessional.

  16. Here’s how to stop yourself from crying, when you really don’t want to: Raise your chin and keep it up. Keeping your chin up is not just a cliche — it’s a technique that really works to stop tears. I know, because I’ve had to use it in situations when I was emotional at work. I’m not sure why it works — it may just be a matter of gravity, or perhaps the chin-up posture puts some pressure on the tear ducts. Anyway, it’s worth a try when you’re in a tough situation. It won’t stop the emotions, but it may stop the tears.

  17. I’ve never…been driven to tears myself (at least not at work), though I have been driven by frustration to cursing under my breath.

    Here’s a difference, I think, in the way men and women have been socialized to respond to frustration. It’s culturally “okay” for women to cry, so when frustrated, we cry. It’s never okay for men to cry under any circumstances, so when frustrated, they may curse or throw things or hit something – but not cry. Same emotions, different reactions. It takes an unusual circumstance to elicit tears and when it does, it has profound consequences, as A Nony Mouse above describes.

  18. I’m not sure if the issue of crying in the workplace (academic or otherwise) can be discussed without consideration of the currently accepted view of professionalism. I think Rob has come closest to my understanding of why crying is frowned upon in workplaces with one major proviso. From my experience, the current view of professionalism in Western society typically equates it to a lack of demonstrations of negative emotional responses. Where I think Rob is off is that strong displays of positive emotion are not shunned in a similar manner. Maybe it is a carry-through of the “stiff upper lip” in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but any display of negative emotion (anger, fear, or sadness) is viewed in a strongly negative manner within professional communities. Crying is simply one of several negative emotional displays that are shunned. Similarly, people think as unprofessional the man who throws objects, curses or pouts. Oddly enough, strong positive emotions, up to and including “tears of joy” are not viewed in a similar manner. Consider, as an example, the classic scenes of the NASA control rooms upon successful launch. In those positive situations, tears are not viewed as being unprofessional and even men feel free to shed tears in public.

  19. I can certainly echo the fact that anger and frustration are the major aspects of any waterworks meltdown. Last month I was given notice that I had just been completely screwed over, no chance of asking for reconsideration. Whole future riding on this thing. My supervisor later said he thought I was going to rip his head off. I pounded my fist on my desk and fumed for a good 15 minutes before running to the admin office in a total rage.

    The moment I saw my friend, my breathing became panicked and I melted down. I kept asking how I was supposed to get through this? She kept telling me to just talk with the Boss, that he’d understand if I presented the problem in person. But by this time I was in full meltdown/waterworks mode. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a real panic attack. I couldn’t talk to someone I respected in that state, and I was ashamed of myself for letting it happen.

    It took 2 hours in the bathroom (alone, some friend) before I worked up the courage to go to the secretary and ask to see the Boss. I sat for 15 minutes pinching my fingertips to keep myself from panicking again and crying. I don’t know why that worked. He was very understanding of the problem and cleared everything up. He also wisely failed to comment on my emotional state, or my red swollen face. Other men I work with don’t understand that trick. Talking about how being upset makes the crying start again.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  20. A couple men have mentioned they don’t know how to handle tears – tissue, hug, what? Well, now that you know that women’s tears are frequently a sign of rage – be wary of offering a hug. Offering a hug to someone who’s really pissed off is just patronizing.

  21. I feel much the same way- and perhaps there is some truth to men’s assumptions about women crying. After all, the only time I let myself cry in front of other people is when I think it will benefit me and don’t care if they think I’m weak (so basically, only in front of police officers). By selectively crying, we’re feeding into that notion that crying is manipulative. And if you can’t manipulate it, well, that means you’re too weak to do so!

    Still, I don’t think it should necessarily be acceptable. I think work is not the place for strong emotion, whether it’s crying or anger. It’s not professional, and should be reserved for friends and family members. If you think your boss should know something and fear getting too emotional about it, state it in an e-mail. It’s a bit impersonal, but let them know that you find it difficult to talk about. An actual display of emotion is a lot more uncomfortable for everyone involved in person than is its admission via e-mail.

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