I remember the first time I cried at work. I was fresh out of college, working my first job as an assistant to an executive at a Los Angeles publishing company.
The manager of another department came thundering down the hall, red-faced and yelling—at me, about something over which I had no control. I felt cornered, attacked, upset. And then, when I realized the proverbial floodgates were about to open, I felt mortified.
Green as I was, I knew crying at work was a major no-no. My boss—a woman—saw me and, sensing what was coming, told me to come into her office. She closed the door, handed me a box of tissues, and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Then, more seriously, she added: “But you know you should never cry at work, right?”
Navigating emotions in the workplace is fraught territory, and the fallout is different for women than it is for men.
Consider the difference in perception of anger. In the new book What Works for Women at Work, the coauthors reference an interview with Sallie Krawcheck, the former head of wealth management at Bank of America:
[Krawcheck] recalled male colleagues slamming tables in anger and throwing things across the room, behavior that was considered the norm. But one day a female colleague lost her temper. Said Krawcheck, "I remember thinking to myself, 'Bitch.' "
The double standard is bad enough, but it doesn't help that women will bend over backward to avoid getting branded with the scarlet “B”—even if it means undermining themselves by prefacing everything with an apology, or ending every sentence in a higher tone so it sounds like a question (a practice known as “uptalk").
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says the slew of "sorry"s is common because women “generally prefer to be well-liked…. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be.”
All of which is why, when it comes to anger, “women believe they have to bottle it up,” says Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. “But emotions have to get expressed somehow, so it comes out as tears, and then we feel ashamed, angry at ourselves. So it’s this triple, quadruple, horrible whammy.”
Add to this the fact that women have six times as much tear-producing prolactin and smaller tear ducts, so while a man might well up, a woman will suddenly have big, fat tears rolling down her face, giving detractors the opportunity to brand her as "out of control.”
Biologically, Kreamer explains, men are more inclined to anger. When most men feel threatened, the body is flooded with “aggression hormones.” Women in the same situation are hit with a dose of oxytocin, the “tend and befriend,” or bonding, hormone. And because men were, for years, the sole kings of industry, the typical male response was absorbed as normal—and anger was rewarded.
“Historically, people granted men more leadership if they did express anger, so it kept getting reinforced,” Kreamer says.
According to a new study, men will purposely try to anger their opponents to win, an enterprise that’s particularly dangerous when a woman is on the receiving end of such manipulation, should she indeed erupt—whether in anger ("bitch") or tears ("out of control").
One of that study’s authors wrote, "It's natural to be influenced by your emotions, and we shouldn't feel that doing so is a weakness."
When it comes to anger in the workplace, Kreamer says the trouble is that “studies show it’s not an effective management tool. It’s de-motivating.”
That doesn’t mean all emotions should be banned from the office. On the contrary, Kreamer says: “My research shows that 88 percent of people believe that the expression of emotion at work is a good thing, but the emotions that should be shown are compassion, empathy…the ones that show understanding of the human condition.”