Today I was connecting with a friend of mine and we got into a whole conversation about the challenges of emotion at work. As many of you will know, emotions at work are a favourite topic of mine. We were talking about how we handle ‘anger’, and our perception that anger appears differently in men and women – men often ‘fight’ and women often ‘cry’. I know that I often get so mad that I cry, and I have wondered why I can’t just rein it in and not get tearful when I am angry, because frankly, being tearful has never really helped move things along…
A while ago I heard something along the lines that ‘women are genetically programmed to cry more than men’… it stuck with me but I never looked into it any further or really looked at whether that is ‘true’ or based on any scientific evidence. Is there a genetic cause, or is it societal? We all know the old story that it’s ok for men to fight and women to cry… is that the full extent of it?
So with this blog post I wanted to explore that a little. I took a little stroll into the google world to see what I could find about emotion and gender…
Before I can get into some of what I read (and understood!) there are a few terms that I’ll use that I will explain as I understand them.
1. Emotional Reactivity : this is the extent to which you are ruled by your emotions. In a nutshell when a situation occurs, do you immediately and, to some extent, involuntarily respond to the emotion that flares inside you?, or as defined in one study (1) “the nature and strength of an individual’s unaltered emotional response”. So basically, how ‘big’ is your unmanaged emotional reaction to something? If there’s a scale from 1-10 when something happens, 1 being you ‘blink and move on’ and 10 being you ‘have a volcano blowing up inside you’ where are you on the scale?
2. Emotional Regulation: “Emotional regulation is a complex process that involves initiating, inhibiting, or modulating one’s state or behavior in a given situation” (Thank you Wikipedia). So, you could say that emotional regulation is your ability to master your emotional reactivity. In order to ‘fit in’ with society , we generally have to fit into some socially acceptable scale of emotion, and so we emotionally regulate a lot of the time. When we hit our maximum number on the scale, regulation is about the ways that we can bring that number down to something that we feel is socially acceptable.
3. Cognitive Reappraisal: Basically, in order to bring your emotional level down, you change the way that you think about the thing that upset you. E.g. you switch from “I failed the test, I am stupid” to “I failed the test, I have an opportunity to learn”. It’s one of a range of emotional regulation strategies.
Basically – I’m interpreting from this, that to be emotionally intelligent, we need to have a ‘proportional’ level of emotional reaction, (for example , not have an emotional reaction of 10/10 because someone ate the last donut….) and have strategies for emotional regulation to bring any ‘high number’ or reaction down so that we don’t get overwhelmed by emotion and we conform to what is considered ‘socially acceptable’.
So basically however ‘reactive’ I am, I need to be able to manage that down to a reasonable number on the scale, whatever that means.
So all well and good – but back to the gender question.
Do men and women have different emotional responses?
Men and women in the research have the same degree of emotional awareness; both men and women report as much thinking about their emotions, so it’s not that women are ‘more emotional’ or have more emotional reactivity. Women aren’t naturally more up the high end of the scale versus men or show more tendency to have reactions to things. So the differences are not about the level of reactivity.
However, women and men appear to process emotions differently and express emotion differently. Both a man and a woman might be reactive at a 5/10 but how that 5 is displayed is different. According to an article published in Psychology today (2) girls and boys cry the same amount of times up until about the age of 12, but by the age of 18 women cry 4x as much as men. So something changes in either regulation, as in men regulate more than women, or in expression, as in we regulate the same amount but the emotion we show is different. Or both.
So lets look at regulation.
There is a different biochemical response in women and men when it comes to trying to regulate emotion, or “bring things down on the scale”. In one study(1) , it appeared that men were able to process reappraisal strategies (reframing the thing that triggered the emotional reaction) more easily than women. This showed up by a decrease in amygdala activity. The amygdala is responsible for our flight or fight response. So if men can more easily reduce the activity of the amygdala, I assume that means they are more able to regulate their negative emotions.
So we are equally emotionally aware, but men regulate more easily. Ok. But does expression play a part? Do we actually express the emotions differently? Do angry women cry and angry men fight?
Well, firstly, testosterone seems to play a role in supporting emotional regulation, and plays a role in tear inhibition, so men, who generally have more testosterone, are more able to ‘put the brakes on’ their emotions, and specifically crying. And of course, that also explains why women cry less as they get older and men cry more because testosterone levels change. The hormone prolactin, which increases during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and breast feeding, as well as stress, is also supposed to be linked to crying. So basically, the hormones that men generally have in spades help to inhibit crying, and the hormones that women generally have in spades are linked to crying.
Some studies suggest the crying aspect is also about the shape of tear glands in men and women. A man’s tear ducts are bigger than a woman’s so a woman will reach the stage where she cries sooner (because her tear ducts over flow faster).
There are also societal suggestions for why some of us cry and others don’t.
And women are more likely to express their emotional verbally, which may mean they get labelled as more emotional where as men are more likely to suppress emotions until they are expressed physically. The fact that we differ in how we choose to express emotion (verbal vs. physical) is likely a result of social influence. Basically, it’s still not as socially acceptable for men to cry and women to fight.
One hypothesis for why we express emotion the way we do, is around evolution. The suggestion is that crying is part of how we signal empathy and also vulnerability. Women therefore share their emotions as a sign of trust, and to build relationships that help us survive, whereas men are expected to be strong and protective and not show vulnerability. I am not entirely sure how I feel about that suggestion…
So in essence, we have the same reactivity, but men have the advantage in regulation and are hormonally, and physically built to cry less, as well as possibly encouraged to do so by society. So then I cry because, as a woman, I am a hormonal, non regulating, small tear ducted, empathetic talker about feelings compared to men. Thanks. Lol.
But it is important to know those things because we can massively generalize and label people “too emotional” or “unemotional”. Its easy to assume its entirely gender specific, but it does seem that there are things that can contribute to the differences in how emotions are displayed between men and women.
I guess what is most important though, is to understand what difference the emotion makes to the individual. I’m quite comfortable with crying, for me, its no big deal. For others, its much more impactful. So before we rule things appropriate or inappropriate, or put it down to gender, lets simply have some good conversation about what emotions might show up for us in the work place, and how we handle it when they do.
1. McRae, K., Ochsnerm K., Mauss, I., Gabrieli, J., & Gross, J. (2008). Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI Study of Cognitive Reappraisal. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
2. The Crying Game by Audrey Nelson: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/he-speaks-she-speaks
3. cited in “Emotion at Work” by Rhonda Muir http://www.lawpeopleblog.com/2013/04/emotion-at-work-more-on-anger-crying-and-gender/
4. “Read it and weep crybabies” Forbes Magazine, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703922804576300903183512350