Saturday, May 09, 2009

Big girls don't cry

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend and I got into a disagreement. I won't say it was an argument- we almost never argue about anything. But I think this really caught her off-guard, because my own reaction caught me a little bit off-guard.

You may recall, because I think I blogged about it, that once upon a time I was accused of being a crier. You know, someone who cries a lot at work.

Ironically, at the time I did not cry much at all, and I have never been the sort who cries to try to get her way (or to get an A).

I thought my friend recalled this too, and that she would understand my feelings on the matter, partly because she's one of those people who has always made me feel loved unconditionally. I've always thought of her as a very understanding person.

So today when I ran across this link to the Society of Women Engineers magazine I happened to flip through it and found this article on pages 66-67 under the heading Career Toolbox.

And here is what reminded me of the disagreement with my friend:

Under a paragraph that begins, "is it okay to show emotion?" The authors say that tears are understandable when there has been a death in the family. But tears are not appropriate, they say, when an insult is directed at you, when a performance evaluation doesn't go well, etc (I'm paraphrasing but that's the gist of it).

My conversation with my friend revolved about her boss, who apparently has been bursting into tears a lot at work. My friend, uncharacteristically I thought, had neither patience nor respect for this behavior, and said as much.

I said, well, I think you're being a little unfair. Your company has been doing layoffs, morale is bad in general, but also you never know what else is going on in her life.

And then I told her I've been finding myself unable to not cry at work lately.

A lot.

There was dead silence when I said this.

Eventually, she said, Well, the thing is that I can see how you might get blindsided by something really awful and not be able to control your reaction...

...and she trailed off. I said yeah, that's the thing. There are things every day... and I'm trying not to but it's just so unbelievably awful. And I can't leave yet... I'm just trying to get through the day without crying most days until I can leave. And I don't think I want to go on medication because I'm fine when I'm home. I'm fine when I'm anywhere else. I just can't leave yet. So I can imagine if your boss feels like that, I said.

And then I said something that I guess must have shocked her, which was that I don't really see the point in having a workplace where crying is forbidden, anyway.

Dead silence. This is not a good sign, when she's saying absolutely nothing at all.

Now I didn't mention this, but my friend is from a military family. I think this is part of why she believes it is, as the SWE women apparently do, inappropriate to display any kind of emotion in public. Unseemly.

But it was actually one of my male "mentors" who said he thought it should be fine to have emotions, even in science, and that you shouldn't have to bottle it up because it's not really healthy for anyone to do that.

Huh, I thought, at the time. In fact, I thought he was nuts.

But after I thought about it a while, I realized what he was getting at.

Because in a way, at the end of the day, it is just a rule that everybody agrees to follow.

I'm not sure it's a rule with a lot of functional purpose, or much data to back it up. Is it really better for productivity in the long run? Or morale? Isn't it just another way of preventing everyone from communicating about the issue of job satisfaction (or complete lack thereof)? Isn't it just another way of making sure that workplace behavior is mostly inauthentic posturing? And is that really the best way to be? Pretending all day that everything is okay?

Meanwhile, I've seen posts from some of my fellow bloggers, e.g. complaining about students who cry.

What do you think? Is crying in professional settings bad for everyone? Or is this just more of that cultural baggage that comes from a long tradition of male-domination in the workplace?

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21 Comments:

At 9:35 PM, Anonymous DrL said...

Is it really better for productivity in the long run? Or morale?I am sure you know the answer, it is just your military-raised friend confused you for a short while.

Your friend was made to believe that the masculine rules of not showing emotions are the best and maybe she does not know any better?

Also, sometimes women are the harshest critics of other women... maybe her boss feels secure to cry in front of other women, because she does not imagine that she would be judged by them for crying as harshly as by men?

Seems you will get as much support on the crying issue from your friend as from some cold-as-stone, insensitive guys...

My personal view is that if you feel like crying at work that is just a sign of too much stress and too much pressure. Why stay in such workplace then?...

The issue whether crying should be public or 'in the toilet cubicle' is a separate matter. Some people make strong judgements about others who are not able to "control" their emotions... I personally would protect myself and my image in the eyes of such people (men and women, as evidenced by your friend's opinion) and go to cry privately. Just to protect the image.

But keeping the emotions inside and bottling them up cannot be good for the workplace, for the morale, or for productivity. You know that, please to not start believing in such harsh inhumane opinions as our friend does...

 
At 9:49 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

The "cultural baggage" issue is something I'm going to have to chew on for awhile.

I think most extremes of emotion are frowned upon-- people are uncomfortable with tears and screams of joy. I've learned this over the years, and so in grad school quickly realized that a quick (or not-so-quick) cry or excited hop in a bathroom stall was preferable to the reactions of coworkers. Now I can just shut my office door; my office smells much nicer, and my chair is far more comfortable (and sanitary-- I hope!)

As for students crying in front of me (or on my exams!), while I'm not personally comfortable with it, I clearly do not convey this to my students because they cry (or come close to crying) in front of me all. the. time. I prefer to chalk this up to their comfort level with rather than concluding that I must be a huge bitch that reduces all her students to tears. The jury is still out on that, however.

So I suppose that while I don't condone or actually enforce the rule (I have passed around many a box of tissues), I am a follower myself.

 
At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a crier and a female postdoc. I can't help myself when things go horribly wrong at work. In my defense, I do try to hide it (go off to the bathroom or some other part of the lab), but invariably, someone will see me with splotchy red eyes and a runny nose.

I think crying is an effective release of emotions and frustration for me. It happens about once a year for me, perhaps less frequently.

That said, I don't think crying has a place in the workplace. It does make it bad for everyone. Unfortunately, crying is almost always seen as a sign of weakness. You are giving the other side a chance to be seen as an aggressor or even a victor.

You are right, however, it IS just another way of posturing when it is frowned upon at the workplace.

 
At 2:11 AM, Blogger Becca said...

Such a complicated topic.
I think an arbitrary "crying is unprofessional" makes about as much sense as "laughing is unprofessional" (that is, there may be times when it's not part of our traditional behavior, but it's not fully under voluntary control and isn't itself a bad thing).
That said, one disadvantage of crying you don't mention is how it emotionally affects others. Yes, in an ideal world we would all be able to sympathize while being detached enough to not empathize if it will interfere with out own functionality. But if we lived in that world, psychologists wouldn't need to see other psychologists.
Being emotionally supportive of distressed people can be draining.
I think it's harder in science, because it can be very difficult to imagine any of those around you caring enough to be affected by your crying.

 
At 4:24 AM, Blogger Psycgirl said...

I think it depends, at least in my workplace, on how much you cry. Crying now and again is not the end of the world. But grad students who cry frequently don't get any attention for it after a while, which I imagine feels pretty awkward and isolating. I've never had an advisor cry on me... I think I would feel uncomfortable with a boss who frequently cried because the power differential would make it feel difficult to comfort him/her.

 
At 7:45 AM, Blogger Phagenista said...

Crying in professional settings is going to happen, and people should be prepared for seeing/experiencing crying occasionally. I heard of one male PI mentoring another to have a box of tissues always available in his office for crying students -- and I think that's darn good advice and I think it applies to mentees of all genders.

When people, typically female people, are going through tough times at home or at work, there might be more than occasional crying. I think most of us have been there, and if you have supporting coworkers, having these breakdowns at work can give you the advice and help get through the crisis more quickly.

I can imagine how uncomfortable the unsupportive, or just neutral coworkers feel about seeing crying on a daily basis... but I'm not sure there is a Miss Manners way to handle it. Maybe by the crying person (or one of their supportive labmates suggesting this) moving to a more private space as soon as possible.

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Is crying in professional settings bad for everyone? Or is this just more of that cultural baggage that comes from a long tradition of male-domination in the workplace?Yes, and yes. It's male cultural baggage, but for the most part right now I try to work within those basic rules (ie if I have to cry, I go to the bathroom to do so). It just feels like a gender battle I don't want to pick, for now. (Also, hard to fight battles when your nose is running.)

OTOH, I cried in front of my advisor when I got back some pretty vicious reviews recently, despite best efforts to avoid it, so sometimes I just rely on other people not to judge too harshly.

 
At 12:40 PM, Blogger Diaphoresis said...

It is very unprofessional to cry if there is unfavorable job performance, criticism, or failure; apart from the fact it impedes comfortable interaction between coworkers, nobody wants to deal with a person perceived as emotionally unstable. Also it may put the other person in a very unsavory position. I know at least one case where due to a heated discussion between a male & female coworker, the woman started crying & the company fired the guy, fearing sexual harassmment charges. I can bet if a guy had cried everyone would have said "what a wuss." Showing emotions at workplace is one thing, it is OK, but crying is losing control over one's emotions, which at the workplace is never desirable.

 
At 6:00 PM, Blogger Alicia M Prater said...

To the comment above me, since when is shedding tears a sure sign of instability? It's emotion and we all express it, whether we admit it or not. The idea of control is part of the baggage.

If someone is feeling so strongly about something, they shouldn't be forced to hold it in. This causes psychological damage if done consistently over long periods of time. Also, women going trough menopause have been known to need a little more understanding when it comes to emotions and expression. Should all female scientists take a hiatus between the ages of 40 and 50 in order to appear more professional?

I can respect people who control their emotions and yet still allow themselves to express them privately. As long as they don't judge others who are not that strong. We all have different strengths, for some of us emotional expression is not one of them, and it is by no means a prerequisite for practicing science well.

 
At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's OK to cry at work if you are experiencing extreme distress such as a death in the family, or you've just being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or something of that magnitude.

However, bursting into tears at work over things that are not that serious in nature is, in my opinion, unprofessional and immature.



A colleague of mine in my postdoc lab would OFTEN burst into tears if her experiments went wrong. I thought this was inappropriate - hey my experiments go wrong all the time too, but that is the nature of research. She needed daily affirmations of her intelligence or capability and our lab environment didn't give daily positive feedback. one does need to develop some degree of inner strength. if you can't handle a fundamental characteristic of the work or workplace, then this is not the right place for you to be in. Sure enough, she voluntary left after 2 years, and after much crying on the job.


The thing is, who is to judge whether something is a big deal or not, whether it is 'acceptable' to burst into tears over, or not? Just because something may not be a big deal to you, doesn't mean it isn't a big deal to someone else. to me experiments going wrong, constantly, is not on par with a personal tragedy thus it doesn't elicit tears from me. But since it brought my colleague to tears very often, does that mean that to her it WAS on par with a personal tragedy? Or does it just mean that it took very little for her floodgates to open but she didn't necessarily feel any worse about it than I did?

 
At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Peter Pruyn said...

Most characterizations of mental health include the notion of authenticity. I believe that the health of any person, relationship, family, or social system is a function of the degree to which members can be authentic, not only with others but also with themselves.

It is true that we should all be able to choose between public and private expressions of emotions, but regularly suppressing such expression only leads to nervous breakdowns or worse. It is also true that chronic behavior of any kind is another story. But when behavior comes out of habit rather than the moment, it ceases to be authentic.

The one professional exception I can think of is work performed in operational environments such as in the military, aviation, or operating rooms. When tasks must be performed in real-time to save lives, emotional compartmentalization is a reasonable strategy provided future emotional outlets are available. Just ask any Vet about PTSD.

Finally, as a purely analytic argument, all systems are governed by feedback. Any successful relationship is a continuous communication and negotiation of needs. Any successful organization is a collection of such relationships. Attempts to stifle such feedback does not eliminate the feedback, it simply diverts it into less obvious forms such as lower morale, absenteeism, and turnover.

Finally, women should not be embarrassed that their monthly cycle can affect the likelihood of their crying. Both women and the men in their lives should take the time to read Louann Bizendine's The Female Brain. See pp. 45-49, 119, and 124-125 for discussions relevant to this topic.

It is no accident that as the most successful primate we have emotions; they are an unmatched evolutionary advantage in motivation and relationships. To try and deny the core essence of what makes us human strikes me as the deepest possible form of depravity.

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

I can't imagine anyone, of either gender, crying at work.
But I am British.
Crying in the toilets, yes.
If someone is crying on a regular basis, I would think it is a sign that something is wrong; either their job is crappy, or it could be a sign of depression.
That said, crying every now and then is healthy and I agree with others that emotions should be let out. I went through a crappy time at work a few weeks ago. It was actually on a course I did on assertiveness type stuff that we were told to express emotion- in private, if need be. So I started just crying when I get home, or yelling (with TV up loud to conceal from neighbours), or beating up cushions, etc. It does help.
Also, if someone is being a dick - or has upset you - imagine they are in the room and let them have it. Say what you want to say, but can't in real life.
(I believe I told the imaginary version of my boss that she has the communication skills of a walrus. And I actually like her).
(And I called a techy guy a dick with a social and emotional development of an 8 year old. Which I stand by.)

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Marta said...

I was really touched by this post of yours. I've been in a situation similar to yours (a postdoc that did not work out for me, an advisor I completely did not get along with, only a second author paper from the postdoc) and it felt terrible at the end; my heart goes out to you. Many times after meeting with the advisor from hell who would put me down not just as a worker (I can deal with constructive criticism) but as a person I would go into the restroom and cry.
You can get through this, like I did eventually. This isn't the end. Academia is not the only way and people are still getting jobs in industry and alternative careers despite the economy. Several of my friends have gotten such jobs recently. Persist, network, and do things that increase your confidence (whether it's exercise, hanging out with your friends or significant other, volunteering, whatever). I know you can get past this postdoc and move on to a great career.
If you think talking to someone who was in a similar boat not long ago would help, let me know.

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I think it's quite telling that most of these comments liken crying in public to shitting your pants: better to do it in the toilet. WTF? Does anyone else think that's just kind of a weird cultural thing that makes no sense?

They're just tears, people. Not biohazardous waste.

Becca- you bring up an interesting point. I don't particularly care if they care or not, because if they do, they don't express it. I'm not their problem; they're not my problem. One big happy family, see?

Psycgirl- maybe this is part of the problem of how crying is perceived, so thanks for bringing that up.

Crying as an adult is not, as far as I can tell, the same as crying children. Babies cry to get attention; adults don't necessarily expect any reaction. In fact we might not want anyone to notice. Hence the "crying is something you do in the bathroom" phenomenon highlighted so well here.

Dr. J&H, yeah, vicious reviews make me want to cry, too. The idea that this is the state of science and everyone goes along with it and there's basically no one you can complain to about it because the journals control everything... don't get me started!

@Diaphoresis and Anon 12:43,

Yeah, I think the point is that crying about setbacks in science is just kind of lame. If you can't handle your experiments not working, you're in the wrong business.

However, when your advisor or coworkers (or even reviewers) are constantly putting you down personally or putting down your work by attacking you unprofessionally, I think that goes into the territory that even you have to agree would be upsetting to anyone.

Crying shouldn't be mixed up with sexual harassment, unless the guy actually did something to make this poor woman so afraid for her safety that she was literally brought to tears.

I've seen it happen in the workplace, and to me it's way more inappropriate to treat women like that in professional settings than for women to cry occasionally. But more often than not, crying is noticed by everyone, while sexual harassment goes unreported and unpunished.

Peter- some good, though pedantic, points. Do you always talk like a textbook?

butterflywings- interesting idea. I'm more the type who takes it out on a punching bag than making speeches out loud, but I do sometimes rehearse things I would say to my boss if I could. In high school we used to go outside and scream sometimes. It did help.

Marta- thanks, that's really comforting.

 
At 4:56 AM, Blogger MissPrism said...

I got through a PhD, several postdocs and the first couple of years in a faculty position with occasional secret crying. And yes, sometimes I cried about science related things - I care about them, which I don't see as an unprofessional attitude. I also have a low cry threshold, so the physiological response can be impossible to suppress even when my emotions aren't actually running that high.

Then yesterday while discussing a career setback I cried in front of my boss for the first time. Not sobs, but tears, and I needed to blow my nose. My only options were to leave the room (which would have looked like I was storming out in a huff) or carry on the conversation with tears. Thankfully, he offered a tissue and didn't make a big deal of it.

I was angry at myself for crying, because I was worried that he might a. think I was doing it deliberately to be manipulative, and/or b. think I was unstable or hysterical. But both of those are about sexist perceptions, not about any problem inherent in crying. I hadn't "lost control" - I was still carrying on a rational conversation, just with a wet face.

I'd agree that crying at work should be avoided wherever possible (and if you find yourself doing it often, something is seriously wrong), but it shouldn't be seen as shameful to show tears now and then.

Crying's not necessarily a sign that you can't handle things, either. I cried briefly when a paper was nastily rejected, but promptly rewrote it for another journal, where it was accepted. Why is that "not handling it"? A guy who swears out loud when his experiments fail wouldn't have his competence questioned. It's only the expression of "womanly" emotion that we treat with this kind of disdain.

 
At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Peanut said...

Crying can also be a way that some express a variety of emotions: sadness, anger, frustration.

Life and emotions happen. I'm sick of attitudes that assume the only way to be professional is to have a single-minded focus on work only.

Wanting a vacation? A family? Reasonable working hours? Not work appropriate, not professional.

I'm a perfectionist. I cry tears of frustration when I can't figure out how to do something I really want to do. I really hate when it happens, but there it is, out for everyone to see.

I once cried uncontrollable tears of rage/frustration in intro biology lab, because I just didn't get meiosis. The male TA was flummoxed. I told him to ignore the tears, I was confused, and I was going to STAY in lab until I figured it out.

I grabbed the box of kimwipes, and we worked through meiosis I and II for an hour after lab was formally over.

I've also defended female colleagues in the midst of a crying jag (anger, frustration) from male colleagues who just wouldn't BACK OFF. You know, because they saw her tears as a weakness, so they just kept pressing their point.

Defend as in, "You two go away. Now is not a good time to continue arguing your point. Come back later. I'll let you know when." They persisted; I showed them the door.

Males don't seem to cry as often as women do. Don't hold it against us for expressing the same emotions differently than you would.

Deal with it.

 
At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Peanut said...

Crying can also be a way that some express a variety of emotions: sadness, anger, frustration.

Life and emotions happen. I'm sick of attitudes that assume the only way to be professional is to have a single-minded focus on work only.

Wanting a vacation? A family? Reasonable working hours? Not work appropriate, not professional.

I'm a perfectionist. I cry tears of frustration when I can't figure out how to do something I really want to do. I really hate when it happens, but there it is, out for everyone to see.

I once cried uncontrollable tears of rage/frustration in intro biology lab, because I just didn't get meiosis. The male TA was flummoxed. I told him to ignore the tears, I was confused, and I was going to STAY in lab until I figured it out.

I grabbed the box of kimwipes, and we worked through meiosis I and II for an hour after lab was formally over.

I've also defended female colleagues in the midst of a crying jag (anger, frustration) from male colleagues who just wouldn't BACK OFF. You know, because they saw her tears as a weakness, so they just kept pressing their point.

Defend as in, "You two go away. Now is not a good time to continue arguing your point. Come back later. I'll let you know when." They persisted; I showed them the door.

Males don't seem to cry as often as women do. Don't hold it against us for expressing the same emotions differently than you would.

Deal with it.

 
At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bearing on this issue (though it is anecdotal): I've seen a few female to male transgendered people who have transitioned say that it is much harder for them to cry as men than it was as a biological woman. So for men, it could be that crying represents a MUCH stronger emotion than for women, which could be part of why men consider crying in public a sign of loss of control. In addition to all the macho BS men hear since early boyhood.

As women in science, we are the minority that is forced to follow the cultural rules of the male majority. It is the same for minorities everywhere. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

 
At 2:06 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

I actually don't get this 'euw dirty' thing about toilets.
They get cleaned every day, right?
It's not as if you're sticking your head in.
I actually go to get away from work...to think things through...and yes, do the stereotypical appearance checking things.

It is true that crying is negatively perceived at work. I'm not saying it *should* be. I am all for a more emotionally expressive culture - but what to do? I'd defend a colleague (of either gender) who cried at work, absolutely, but I wouldn't cry. No way. As I said, I do think it may be a cultural thing that overt expression of emotion, at all, in the workplace is frowned upon at work here in the UK - whereas I certainly get the impression that it is more acceptable in the US (but hey, correct me if I'm wrong).
I mean any expression of emotion, as in, there is no way men (or women) in my workplace would show overt anger e.g. shout, slam around.
As peanut said, men and women express the same emotion in different ways.
Of course, there are double standards. Women crying, and men showing anger, will be disapproved of and damage their career - but showing *non* gender appropriate behaviour, i.e. the man crying, the woman being angry, would be worse, I think.
Either way, women would be seen as 'irrational' and 'hysterical' though.

 
At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Ashton said...

Hello, I am currently 19 year old female. In my life i went threw parents divorce and living from motels to complexes in the cities. My mother never being home to my father always putting me down along with my mother and siblings. I was always picked on in grade school and got into many fights. I started to iceolate myself and not talk to family or friends and stay in my room alot or self disaplin if you will call it. It was hard to form a relationship with my mother but now its getting better but my main issue is, I cry all the time. Its almost a daily basis thing. I have cried so much from since i was 10 to 19. I have a way better life now. But when Im hurt I cry when someone offends me to the max I cry, when I get into trouble I cry. If I feel something is my fault I cry. I also hate crying infront of people I would of rather of did it alone but now I have a boy friend, and he hates seeing me cry all time and its something he cant deal with. My mother doesnt like to hear me or see my cry as well. I know its hard for then but I dont know if deep down I have problems that make me cry consistantly or what. Half the time Im fustrated or I feel I messed something up and I just cry.. I dont know if I should see a shrink to find out why or if its just normal but I dont think it is. Any suggestions?

 
At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I keep finding myself crying every night in bed but for some reason at school I manage to feel happy without really trying though there's still something 'deep down inside' as they say. I've had to get through a few difficult times but I feel like nothing is really significant enough for me to make a fuss about and talk to anyone about. Once or twice I've burst out crying in front of my mum and she's basically told me to man up and get on with it. I just feel like all these things are building up and they feel hugely important to me even if to someone else its pretty insignificant. I just want someone to notice that I'm not happy without me having to make a fuss about it, as selfish as that sounds.

 

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