The question “why do women cry more than men” has been the subject of several studies over the years and many theories have been put forward to provide an answer to this phenomenon.
Women learn pretty early on in life that men can get uncomfortable when faced with a crying woman, and will often do just about anything to stem the flow of tears. His level of discomfort sky rockets as the sobs increase. He learns he has to keep that box of tissues handy anytime a potentially delicate issue or conflict has to be addressed. Usually, from his perspective her motivation for tears may fall into one of these three categories: hormone, manipulation or sincere emotion. Crying is a foreign concept to most men, and it can be hard to navigate a situation charged with emotion and tears. One of the biggest mistakes men make in conflict is perceiving a woman’s tears as an indication of sadness. Then the man begins to console the woman. She may respond by getting snappy, because he has misread the cue. Underneath a woman’s tears is seldom sadness but rather anger! Although the man is experiencing a high discomfort level with her tears, he needs to get at the anger she is feeling.
Women are taught to be “highly expressive” that is, they can express all their emotions, especially by crying. Emotions are a female trademark, but men report having feelings just as often as women. They just don’t express them.
Girls and boys cry about the same amount of times until they reach the age of twelve, by the time they are eighteen women cry on average four times more than men. That is about 5.3 cries a month compared to a man’s 1.4 times per month according to research by Dr. William Frey who studies tears.
So the old belief is true, women do cry more than men. But scientists still do not know exactly why this is true. One theory is that women cry more than men mostly because of social conditioning. As males are growing up they are urged to excel and become powerful, to never show their emotions, to be tough, independent, demanding, aggressive and good problem-solvers.
Males in our culture often hear things like, “big boys don’t cry” or “take it like a man.”
Big boys don’t cry, except if you are President of the United States. Elizabeth Bumiller, a columnist for The New York Times, documented that the “bawler in chief” may be setting a new standard for men. She cites several accounts, some almost back-to-back, of George W. Bush shedding a tear: “George W. Bush became the first American president to weep in Iraq. Reporters noted a very visible tear dripping down his cheek when he was greeted by whooping American soldiers. The fact is, Mr. Bush cries all the time. Two days after Sept. 11, 2001, his eyes welled up during a phone call with Gov. Giuliani. The following day, he nearly lost his composure while speaking to the nation from the National Cathedral. The president has helped make it safe for men to cry in the open.”
Former President Bush is said to have asked his doctor if he could “prescribe anything to dry up his tears.” True, we see more men crying publicly. However, the context has to be highly defined and emotionally charged to warrant such a display. It takes a war an act of terror, in the case of President Bush.
In an analysis of 500,000 adults, men rated just as high as women in emotional awareness. But men process and express emotions differently than women, and they have no roadmap for how to combine the masculine requirement of being strong and emotional at the same time. A woman cries and a man loses his temper; that seems to be the pervasive theme in many conflicts. Men and women react differently; she shows her vulnerability and he must remain in control.
Yet a woman gets into risky business when she cries, especially at work. She is often perceived in one of two ways. First, she is weak, emotional, and out of control. Second, she is using her tears as emotional blackmail, a form of manipulation, and he resents it. For a woman, crying is a no-win situation.
This is a dilemma for women, because the tears may flow naturally when we are worked up
Audrey had a client who claimed that a pressing problem at work was causing her to lose sleep and become anxious. When Audrey asked, “Why haven’t you approached your manager?” The woman replied, “I’m waiting until I’m sure I won’t start crying.”
85 percent of women and 73 percent of men said that they felt better after crying, which shows that tears may help remove chemicals that build up after stress according to Frey. Also scientists and sociologists both say that women are more inclined than men to feel the urge to cry when they are frustrated.
This may lead to problems for women in certain situations at work. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that men’s tears are viewed more positively than women’s. This is because men are found crying less frequently.
In Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli point out that when it comes to showing emotion, the more male-dominated the field, the greater the damage:
…people scrutinize women’s behavior in very masculine environments, searching for any weakness….Given the demands of masculine environments, emotional displays can suggest weakness, and women are advised to avoid crying when upset. For example, professional development advice offered to women engineers made this point: “While crying is expected for extreme situations (i.e. breaking an arm, or a death in the family), it is considered taboo for professional women in response to normal work situations….nothing reinforces the negative stereotype of women being ruled by emotions rather than professionalism like a crying woman professional.”
A useful technique for women in this kind of situation is “pre-cuing.” Set up the conflict communication, and possible tears, for a win. Tell the person that you’re very concerned and upset about what you’re preparing to discuss. If you subsequently get upset, say that you will take responsibility for your tears and you want him to take responsibility for what you are saying. Many women have reported that when they indicate that they may “lose it” and start to cry, they actually gain a sense of more control and end up not crying. This pre-cuing technique handles the credibility issue for an out-of-control woman and also eliminates the perception of manipulation. The receiver knows that the tears are a product of concern and frustration.
Dr. Audrey Nelson is an internationally recognized trainer, keynote speaker, author and consultant who helps organizations increase their productivity and profitability through winning communication strategies. She specializes in gender communication, conflict management, communication skills, and sexual harassment and discrimination. Dr. Nelson’s professional background includes 10 years teaching in the Dept. of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For 30 years she has trained and consulted for a wide variety of government and Fortune 50 companies in 49 states, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Korea. Among them are Xcel Energy, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, American Board of Trial Attorneys , AT&T, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, Pentax, Lockheed Martin, Johnson & Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Dept. of Justice and the U.S. Dept. of State. She holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Communication. She conducted post-doctoral work at Warnborough College in Oxford, England in gender communication. Thirty years ago she co-founded and served as president for the Organization for the Research on Women and Communication. Audrey is a published author. You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (Prentice Hall, 2004) was published in six languages. She co-authored Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (Penguin-Alpha Books, 2009) and The Gender Communication Handbook: Conquering Conversational Collisions Between Men and Women (Pfeiffer 2012).