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House Speaker John Boehner teared up when introducing two newly elected Republican congressmen during a closed party meeting on September 15th, not the first time Boehner has choked up in public. A lengthy list of public cries just over the last few years include tears at a commencement speech, while thanking colleagues for their support during budget negotiations, during a talk about schools, discussing at various times his wife and his 11 brothers and sisters, celebrating election night, singing "America the Beautiful," talking about American security and American families who are suffering economically and simply upon taking the speaker’s gavel, many of which sobs are commemorated on YouTube.
While Boehner seems to get away with it, The New York Times columnist Gail Collins contends women particularly must avoid tears in order to maintain their credibility:
One of the best-remembered moments in the Obama/Clinton campaign — Hillary Clinton cries in New Hampshire — is an excellent example of the difference between what men and women can get away with, tear-wise…With her back to the wall and the presidency on the line, Clinton approached the edge of a sniffle and we are still talking about it. Boehner is driven to great, noisy sobs when he contemplates the fact that as a youth, he mopped the floor at his father’s tavern…
[Nancy] Pelosi, of course, does not cry in public. We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she, or any female lawmaker, broke into loud, nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview.
Vivien Chen, of the Careerist, concludes that women can cry to diffuse a bully, but, otherwise, crying’s probably not so cool.
According to the Harvard Business Review, Boehner can get away with crying "because of three key differences between John Boehner and the rest of us above-average professionals looking to progress in our careers: first, he’s the boss, second he’s not crying about workplace issues, and third, he’s old (or older, depending on where you sit)."
The unwritten corporate rule is simple, according to HBR: "It is never okay to cry in your office, with your colleagues, or, god forbid, in front of your boss." So if you feel tears coming on, HBR advises that you either excuse yourself and "then get the hell out of your office…And if you can’t keep it together to excuse yourself, simply exit the building quickly and worry about explaining later."
Does it surprise you, then, to learn that a study conducted by recruitment consultants Michael Page International found that mounting stress of all sorts leads one in three lawyers to cry?
Probably most lawyers would be loathe to admit to crying, so such a statistic looms rather large. If there are behind-the-door sobs, the question becomes whether tears are ever a good response during your working day, public or not.
Human beings are the only species that cries emotional tears, so there isn’t any animal data available, but there’s some interesting research about the differences in the crying habits of men and women.
Evidently women are biologically wired to shed tears more than men. Cells of female tear glands look different than men’s and her tear ducts are smaller, so if a man and a woman both tear up, the woman’s tears will spill onto her cheeks more quickly. A hormone in tears called prolactin, a lactation catalyst, also aids in tear production. By the time women reach 18, they have 50% to 60% higher levels of prolactin in their bloodstream than men do. Age is also a factor. In an extensive study, researchers found that women under 45 are 10 times more likely to cry at work as men 45 and older.
A study of 37 countries determined that women in developed Western economies not only cry much more than men, but also much more than women in societies where women have fewer rights.
The male reticence to tear up seems to be related to testosterone levels. As men age, and their testosterone levels decrease, they cry more. There are also powerful cultural inhibitions that make men less likely to cry, although those are relatively new, according to Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside professor. In the context of centuries and millennia, "male tears are the norm and males not crying is a recent historical aberration," he says, traceable to the late 19th century, when factory workers—mostly men—were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.
Which brings us again to lawyers in modern offices, wary of demonstrations of vulnerability, weakness or failing to spend time productively. Yet evidently still shedding tears, even if behind closed doors.
What is one to do with those exasperating feelings of frustration and anger that would like to express themselves fluidly?
We have reason to believe that not only do men and women have different crying profiles but that they experience strong emotion differently–men have a stronger and longer-lasting physical response to emotion than women do, with higher heart rates and blood pressure, and it is more debilitating to their cognitive functioning–they aren’t able to think as clearly and they remember fewer details of what happened during the emotional experience than women do.
So what looks like a ban against emotional displays in the office for fear of reducing productivity more likely reflects the male experience of debilitation. It is the male experience that may in fact give some justification to keeping one’s emotional experience at the office more serene–let’s not impair our functioning with this kind of stuff. That attitude becomes the cultural norm, and women are often branded as the ones who breach it. But women, unlike men, can move through their emotional experience more quickly and with less impairment, making their aversion to an office episode less likely, at least for reasons of reduced productivity.
The alternative is to suppress emotions, and the adverse impact of suppression is much more dramatic for both sexes. Cognitive functioning declines significantly when the required energy is devoted to choking off emotional expression, leaving little energy for rational thought. And suppression means the cause of the emotion is not being dealt with–the culprit is not being confronted–and therefore there is no relief in sight. So suppression both traumatizes more significantly and lengthens the period of damage.
What can we as practitioners conclude from all of this? If you are a Boehner and feel those tears start to flow, go ahead and find a place to let them flow. Preferably one that is not immediately in sight of your clients, colleagues or staff. Wring out all the emotion–anger and hurt– from those tears and then, when the storm has passed, sit down and analyze what brought on those emotions. Are you frustrated with your situation? Angry at someone’s words? Worried about the impression you made?
Once you have a handle on what feelings prompted the tears, go directly to the source and articulate those feelings. "When the client told me how dissatisfied she was with my brief, I was devastated since I had worked so hard on it."
Then come up with a plan to get you back on the road forward. "I would like to have a conference call where we go over each complaint so I can produce a second draft that suits us both."
And if you find your tears flowing because you’re so proud of your team, just let them go wherever you are.