Why men dread when women cry at work

The role of emotion at work can’t be underestimated. It not only is an outsize factor in hiring; even if we do get the hiring right, it can be the thing that trips us up once we’re actually working together. It’s at the heart of the missed signals, the knee-jerk reactions, and the miscommunication between men and women that can taint our interactions with one another.
To try to comprehend why—is there a physical difference between the sexes, something hardwired into us?—I looked to science. In the past decade, our understanding of the biology as well as psychology of gender has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined back when women first started entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s.
Scientists can pinpoint the differences in men’s and women’s brains that lead to miscues between the sexes. Computer scientists are studying emails to learn how that translates into different communication styles in the modern age. One researcher, perplexed by inconsistent results in an experiment with mice, found that laboratory mice react with fear to male lab assistants—or even to the men’s T-shirts—which changes their body chemistry and creates anxiety. No similar experiment has yet been tried with humans, but you can’t help but wonder if results would be similar.
These scientific discoveries first tell us that no, we aren’t crazy, that there truly is a biological divide between men and women that gets in the way of communication. The differences don’t affect intelligence, but they do have a meaningful impact on how men and women interpret each other’s behavior—or don’t.
Consider the case of women crying. When I meet with executives around the country—asking men what flummoxes them most about their female colleagues—they almost inevitably mention tears. They dread them.
Cardinal Health’s Paul Gotti, for example, has been in the forefront of trying to recruit more women into his traditionally male field. Even so, a while back, he noticed that when he gave performance reviews to employees, he treated men and women differently. With men, he was candid, straightforward, and comfortable in offering them advice on what they needed to do to improve. With women, he felt uneasy. He was leery about being so candid, and wary about criticizing them. To his dismay, he realized that he wasn’t being fair in his performance reviews. He was going easier on the women.
It wasn’t that he held the women to a lower standard, he explained. It was for a wholly different reason: “I didn’t want them to cry, to feel bad.”
I was puzzled when Gotti told me this. He was afraid of crying? I admit it, I weep over Hallmark commercials, and you don’t even want to see me at the end of Beaches. My daughter and I once stumbled across a rerun of the famous weeper and melted into tearful, drippy-nosed puddles, crying in each other’s arms, to my husband’s endless amusement. But I have rarely cried in the office. I haven’t seen too many other women cry at work either.
Not long after speaking with Gotti, I mentioned our perplexing conversation to my friend Jonathan, an editor who has been managing journalists for two decades.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. He had the same fear. He had even begun a new policy when he needed to have a tough conversation with a female subordinate. Now, he makes sure there is a second woman in the room, both to give him a reality check on his own behavior and to provide moral support to the other woman.
“It happens all the time! Women cry and I don’t know how to handle it,” he told me. “I always try to make her feel better, but I end up making things even worse.”
Inadvertently, I had touched on a third rail of gender relations in the office. According to one blog, crying is one of the “10 things women do that absolutely terrify men,” right up there with talking about their periods. Another counseled, “A crying woman is every man’s kryptonite.” A Reddit thread on the “Ask Men” section included the topic: “Men of Reddit: Is it scary, annoying or sad when a girl cries over you?” (Both “scary” and “annoying” had plenty of votes.)
It’s ingrained in popular culture too, the reason why the most famous line in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, comes when Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, coach of an all-female baseball team, reams out a player who begins to weep: “Are you crying? Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”
Books and advice columns for men are riddled with angst over women who cry. Barbara Annis and John Gray, coauthors of the book Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business, identify emotional displays as one of the major challenges men face. Weeping is awful at home or on a date, and if anything, even more horrifying at work. If a woman starts sobbing at the office, a man wants to get the hell away. He wants to flee.
It turns out, though, that there’s a biological reason behind this fear. Scientists have found that women are wired to cry more frequently than men—and young women are ten times more likely to cry at work than men over forty-five, according to Anne Kreamer, who conducted a poll about emotion in the workplace for her book It’s Always Personal.
But she also found that when women do weep at the office, it’s not because their feelings are hurt, as men like Gotti and my friend Jonathan assumed. It’s because they’re pissed off. They’re frustrated. They’re furious.
None of which is apparent to men. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” explained Tim Hunt, a renowned scientist and Nobel laureate in medicine to a room full of science journalists. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”
His comments sparked a firestorm of protest and a new meme, #distractinglysexy, with female scientists tweeting photos of themselves in full lab-coat-and-goggles regalia. So fierce was the reaction that Hunt was forced to resign as an honorary professor at University College in London.
Yet his sentiment, as tone deaf as it was, is more common than you’d think. According to Jill Flynn, of the consulting firm Flynn Heath Holt, the issue isn’t simply that men don’t know how to react to women who cry. They’re also afraid of getting in trouble with the “diversity police” for speaking harshly, or of women being “too high maintenance, or she’ll ask a million questions.” As a result, “men are scared to death to give us feedback . . . They’ll let women run astray and off course and be fired before they’ll take the chance to give them feedback.”
And that’s the problem with the fear of tears. When men go easier on female subordinates, the women don’t get the feedback they need. What’s more, if those men are relentlessly and blandly positive, those comments are discounted by all concerned. And as we’ve already seen, the feedback women do get is often a critique of their personality—that they’re “abrasive” or “emotional”—rather than constructive criticism that would improve their performance. So women don’t get the guidance they need to progress—nor do they get credit when they’ve succeeded.
Studies have found, for example, that women in the energy business receive less criticism than men. So do women working in England’s National Health Service. In one particularly revealing study, scholars analyzed performance evaluations at a Wall Street law firm. They found that women received more positive comments (“excellent!” “awesome!”) than men. But despite stellar evaluations, only 6 percent of the women—versus 15 percent of the men—were mentioned as potential partner material. It’s pretty clear women who cry have a good reason to be angry!
Women’s careers suffer as a result. An Australian consulting firm that studied performance review conversations found that when both participants were men, the sessions were relaxed, collegial, with frequent use of the pronoun “we” and discussions about the employee’s prospects. When the manager was male and the employee female, though, the sessions were uptight; he tended to focus on her performance, not her career development, and to more frequently use the pronoun “you.”
Compounding the issue, Howard Ross, the management training expert and author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, has found that among his clients, men tend to overrate themselves in performance reviews, while women underrate themselves. Women also tend to give credit to their team, while men take personal credit for the team’s work.
Add those factors together, and a woman whose performance is equal to that of a man is at a disadvantage, receiving less useful feedback, less support, and enjoying less rapport with the boss than the guy in the next cubicle.
The irony is, just as women are penalized for showing emotion, men can score points for doing so. In a telling New York Times article about women in Hollywood, male studio executives criticized director Catherine Hardwicke, whose films include Twilight, for being “overly emotional.”
As Hardwicke noted in the piece, she had previously worked for twenty directors, most of them male, and “I was on the set to witness firsthand a range of sometimes atrocious emotions—well-documented firings, yellings, fights between directors and actors, hookers, abusive things, budget overages, lack of preparation. A man gets a standing ovation for crying because he’s so sensitive, but a woman is shamed.”
Scientists have pinpointed several biological explanations for this puzzling behavioral paradox. Laboratory experiments have found, for example, that when women cry, it actually changes men’s body chemistry. A recent study from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science concluded that when men so much as smell tears, their testosterone levels fall. That’s terrifying for men on a professional level.
Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of Emotional Freedom, has called testosterone “a key power hormone that gets corporate executives in warrior mode.” Without that testosterone, they lose their competitive edge. She said that when a woman cries, “it’s threatening hormonally. Studies have associated lower testosterone levels in men with feelings of failure.”
Not only are men’s hormones on the fritz when a woman cries, so are their brains. One intriguing study has shown that men are able to “read” emotions of other men by looking at their faces. But they are unable to easily decipher emotions on the faces of women. The women were simply a mystery to them.
For the experiment, German scientists asked men to view photographs of women’s and men’s eyes, and then describe what emotion they telegraphed—for example, was it “distrustful” or was it “terrified”? The men could quickly and correctly grasp the right answer when looking into the eyes of men, but were frequently baffled by those of women. The scientists theorized that the disconnect dated back to prehistoric days, when cavemen needed to make snap judgments to evaluate whether another man was a friend or an enemy. They didn’t have the same biological imperative to interpret women.
This experiment explains so much. No wonder men are so fearful of saying the “wrong” thing to women. They aren’t sure not only what to say, but also how to evaluate a woman’s reactions. They have no idea what the hell she’s thinking. She’s a mystery. Any word they utter could be a trap. Their fear is, biologically speaking, justified.
Thus, when a man like Paul Gotti, or my good friend Jonathan, was confronted by a crying woman, a 200,000-year-old instinct kicked into gear. It tripped their “fight or flight” mechanism. They wanted to get away.
The good news is, once men recognize it for what it is, they can override it. Once Gotti became aware of his own fear of women crying, for example, he began double-checking to make sure his evaluations of female employees were as candid as those for men. They should have the feedback, he said, “so that they can grow too.”
From THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID: What Men Need to Know (AND WOMEN NEED TO TELL THEM) About Working Together, by Joanne Lipman, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Joanne Lipman. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers
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