In the office, crying is simply another unexpected emotional cue, like a guffaw or a jump for joy. But unlike those, it’s negative, so it snaps people to attention.
The ignominy of the office cry is still more of an issue for women than for men, because women cry more than men do. In her survey of 700 people, Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, found that in the past year, 41 percent of women admitted to crying at work, but only 9 percent of men did.
Part of the explanation is hormonal: Men generate more testosterone, which inhibits crying, while women produce more prolactin, which seems to promote it. Anatomy also plays a role. Men have larger tear ducts than women, so more of their tears can well in their eyes without spilling out onto their cheeks.
Women might also react differently to tear-jerking situations, on average. It’s not usually sadness, per se, that makes people cry. Instead, it’s “helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioral responses to a problem situation,” as Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University and a leading crying researcher, writes.
When women encounter these “problem situations” and react with overt anger, they are often punished for it. In studies, angry men are thought to deserve more status, a higher salary, and are considered better at their jobs than angry women. Women also tend to internalize their emotions—direct them inward—while men externalize them, or project them out, according to Aprajita Mohanty, an assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook university.
Because of that, women might be more likely to react to emotionally frustrating situations with a kind of helpless anger, Vingerhoets said. “They start crying,” he said. While “men tend to react with swearing and anger.”
The sum of all this research suggests that for a woman whose, say, project gets canceled, her reaction is more likely to be, “Okay, I’ll stress-cry a bit and move on with life,” than it is to be ranting and screaming. But the research says, careful with that. Even though women might feel more socially and biologically predisposed to cry, several studies suggest they are nonetheless perceived negatively for crying at work—and in fact, more negatively than men are.
For a study that’s currently under review, Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California, Davis, recruited 65 people from a “Women in Business” conference through a professional M.B.A. program and asked them about times they had cried at work or had seen someone else doing so. She found people thought it was more acceptable to cry about personal tragedies, like a death in the family, than more routine things, like breakups. Crying was more acceptable when it was done in someone’s office than in public, and when it was over quickly. In cases like those, crying could even foster bonds between colleagues.