Cognitive Daily

When is it all right to cry?

For children younger than three, most of us agree that crying is acceptable, especially if they are in physical pain. But even for adults, crying is acceptable during periods of grief. Indeed, we often look askance at a person who does not to cry at a funeral or memorial service of a close friend, loved one, or family member. And crying in such cases is not only acceptable, but helpful, both for men and women. From WebMD:

Men and women both feel better after crying, especially when experiencing a major loss.

“But men are more likely to cry as a result of positive feelings, like at sporting events, whereas women are more likely to cry as a result of negative feelings, like in personal conflicts,” says study author Moira Maguire, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at England’s University of Luton. “Women also tend to feel more emotions when they cry, particularly anger, frustration, fear, self-pity, and powerlessness,” she tells WebMD.

That last point may come as a surprise to some men. That’s right, guys, women don’t just cry when they’re sad, or when their team wins/loses the Super Bowl. They may even cry when they’re angry. ScienceBlogs’ Tara Smith has a thoughtful post about crying in academia.

Tara considers how the emotional benefits of crying often conflict with a woman’s professional goals. There’s the problem of appearing incompetent before a male colleague or superior, the problem of not wanting to invoke the stereotype of a woman crying “to get her way,” and the problem of not wanting to appear fragile or unstable. She links to two other posts and describes the times when she almost cried in a professional setting:

Twice was with my advisor in graduate school–letting him know (both times) when I was pregnant. You might think the second time would have been easier, but that one was actually more difficult because he’d been very good with the first pregnancy and I felt, by having another child, I might be pushing the limits of his patience a bit. But he was still very good about it, causing me to cry with some relief after I was alone.

Most men have been conditioned from a very young age not to cry in situations such as this, and women, clearly, are aware that men are uncomfortable with crying. But since women generally haven’t been encouraged to suppress the urge to cry, then it’s much more difficult for them to do when they would prefer not to cry. There’s little evidence that this is a biological difference between women and men — rather, it seems to be socially conditioned. And, as Tara observes, crying probably should more acceptable, especially in extremely emotional situations like the ones she describes in her post:

Academia (and other high-pressure, high-stress jobs) is enough of a pressure cooker as it is; punishment shouldn’t be feared when we release some of that steam in a healthy way.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael
    February 14, 2007

    I’m not afraid to disclose that in grad school, especially when the impostor syndrome is at its worst, I’ve felt like crying after a seminar where I felt I understood only half the material. I’m sure I have shed a tear or two in my office. After one such (admittedly rare) episode, much to my delight, I recall the professor-the following week-saying that nobody had understood the material. That did not make me cry joyously, though I did feel vindicated.

  2. #2 Rob
    February 14, 2007

    It seems to me like any massive display of emotion, no matter the expression, is frowned on most of time in most North American settings. If you throw a chair because you are frustrated or yell and scream or break into tears it gets coded as inappropriate unprofessional behaviour. Whether this reflects an idea that professionals in any field are going to experience stress and should be able to handle this cooly and logically (you know “professionally”) or a broader North American discomfort with emotional expression isn’t clear to me.

    I don’t think we are uncomfortable as Asian cultures with emotional expression but I suspect that European cultures have a lot more permission to display strong feelings. It would be an interesting cross culture study to compare how different cultures view and interpret different emotional expressions by different genders.

  3. #3 Agnostic
    February 14, 2007

    There’s little evidence that this is a biological difference between women and men — rather, it seems to be socially conditioned.

    Little evidence? There’s a 0.55 SD difference between male & female means in the personality trait Neuroticism, which reflects how prone one is to negative emotions, getting worked up over something, feeling anxiety, and so on, with women more Neurotic. As for Agreeableness, there is a 0.57 SD difference in means, with women more Agreeable. So, women are both much more prone to negative emotions, as well as more Agreeable (empathetic, cooperative, modest, etc.).

    If you are easily worked up, yet also more acquiescent, then you’re likely to express frustration by crying — whereas a high-Neuroticism, low-Agreeableness person would likely go off on a rant (a trial lawyer, for instance). As with pretty much any cognitive trait that varies among individuals, these traits show substantial narrow-sense heritabilities — generally 0.3 to 0.5.

    More, female-to-male transgendered scientist Ben Barres (who caused a stir last summer on the “women in science” theme) — he himself admitted that when he began taking testosterone to make himself more masculine, he lost “the ability to cry easily,” along with gains in visuospatial skills and holding one’s own in a conversation w/o being cut off. So, there’s more than “a little evidence” that biology has a lot to do with why girls are more likely than boys to respond to stressful situations by crying.

    As for whether it should be more acceptable, I think a person’s output won’t be affected by crying per se — I could see this being an issue in a corporate environment where you excel by appearing strong. But in science, no one cares how you appear (compare dress styles of businessmen vs. professors): you’ve either got a knack for figuring stuff out or you don’t.

    But I do think crying covaries with higher levels of Agreeableness (again, a high-N, low-A person would respond with rage, not crying). And eminent scientists generally aren’t the meek, sympathetic types — more of them are raging a-holes than the crying type, but most are on the low-Agreeableness part of the spectrum, short of being a real dick. Rather than this being mere correlation, there’s likely something to this — to do first-rate science work, you can’t be bullied by others, and when the time comes to respond to someone who’s being a stubborn idiot, you have to be able to shut them down.

    This is aside from whether you’re correct in the argument, which of course has nothing to do w/ personality — but when you are correct, you have to have a forceful enough of a personality to take down the incorrect view and hold your own against your detractors.

  4. #4 Katherine
    February 14, 2007

    Agnostic — very interesting comment! You lay out some evidence for an innate difference between men and women for crying…on the other hand, your evidence doesn’t prove the difference outright. For example, in the transvestite’s case, maybe the reason he could hold his own in a conversation was because a) he felt more confident as a male — men are afterall supposed to talk uninterrupted or b) people didn’t interrupt him as much because he was more male than before. People always trust personal anecdote more than other people’s anecdotes, and I have one of my own that supports your claim. As a child I used to get sad when watching an emotional movie, but was unable to cry even though my older sisters and mother would. I even felt weird that I wasn’t crying. Then I hit puberty and I started crying even for cheesy commercials on tv. This big and abrupt transformation was enough to convince me that women are somehow wired to cry more. I do think, though, that socialization plays an enormous role in the difference, too.

    There was one part of your post that I agreed with but would pull a slightly different interpretation from:

    “And eminent scientists generally aren’t the meek, sympathetic types — more of them are raging a-holes than the crying type, but most are on the low-Agreeableness part of the spectrum, short of being a real dick. Rather than this being mere correlation, there’s likely something to this — to do first-rate science work, you can’t be bullied by others, and when the time comes to respond to someone who’s being a stubborn idiot, you have to be able to shut them down.”

    Yes, a lot of eminent scientists are self-centered a-holes without much sympathy. Selfishness and stubbornness are highly rewarded (to an extent — the best ones are people who are both without seeming like they’re either.) The issue I have with this stance, though, is that science doesn’t have to be done this way. So I disagree with the part where you say “to do first-rate science”. I think that if you want to be recognized for your first-rate science and you want the best jobs, you will have to be this non-feminine type of personality under the current society. But if science weren’t set up in a male-centric way in the first place, perhaps that type of personality wouldn’t get as far as someone who is more agreeable.

  5. #5 Some Joe
    February 15, 2007

    I’m a man. I have the hardest time crying. I try sometimes when I really want to but just can’t do it. I get teary eyed really easy, but only out of joy. Occasionally I will tear up over something sad or tragic, but actual outright crying… it must be 10 years at least (and I’m only 27). My wife will cry loudly when she is sad, or angry, or if she has a bad day at work, and especially when she is hormonal.

    This appears to be the general trend amoung my freinds and in society in general. It appears to be very much bioligical, even my gay male freinds don’t cry. I think the burdon of proof may be on you to show why you think it is a result of some sort of conditioning and not hormones or other biological causes.

  6. #6 Wilbur
    February 16, 2007

    I’m sorry, but I burst out in tears out of helplessness when I’m furios!

    Ta

  7. #7 gad
    April 26, 2007

    I cry at funerals, wedding, graduation any type of ceremonial event. Therefore, I avoid all of them and that is not good. Help

  8. #8 Katherine
    May 25, 2009

    It’s really frustrating, when I cry I want to be alone, but the bathroom is on the opposite side of the building from where I sit at work :S

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