Tears Before Bedtime

Tears Before Bedtime

It is a well-worn trope that women weep and men shout. Stereotypical but, although I have occasionally seen women shout I have yet to see a man break down in public when losing an argument (as opposed to when losing a family member, for instance). There is some truth in the stereotyping.

But, in the male-by-default way of the world, shouting is still (largely) seen as something to be tolerated if not approved of. In committee meetings, if not in private, a man raising his voice and losing his cool doesn’t always get to lose the argument. A woman shedding tears in a similar situation is forever after labelled as emotional, hysterical, unable to take the stress of the job and not suitable for future senior roles – in other words, not only is she likely to lose the argument on the day, she may be blacklisted for the future. Indeed, without tears, without even emotion being displayed, women are accused of being emotional as a way of rendering them powerless – or should that be impotent? – as I have experienced to my dismay, if not cost.

Of course in one-on-one situations there have been women who have used their tears manipulatively. Not in the same way as a man (or indeed a woman) shouting to intimidate or bully a junior colleague in a setting without witnesses, but equally an inappropriate way to behave (however much both strategies are of long-standing). But in many cases a woman will break down because she is humiliated, or generally bruised, fed up either with having no attention paid to her yet again or too much, with a tirade directed against her for no good reason. I have yet  to find tears streaming down my face when feeling battered and demeaned (and I rather hope I never do), but it doesn’t mean tears don’t start to my eyes. Still. I try to do the best I can to hide this inconvenient truth. Maybe I should not? Maybe if more of us were comfortable expressing sadness and pain openly and honestly it would make things better for everyone.

Of course there are the times when the stress derived from multiple – and possibly irrelevant – causes builds up and the emotion erupts. A sleep-deprived parent with yet another nursery-produced heavy cold is less likely to be able to hold it all in than someone in the pink of health with no sleep arrears to make up. Someone whose mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer is less likely to be fully functional in a committee meeting than the person who has just received their letter of promotion. This background information, the material context, will usually be invisible to the others round the table, yet it will matter as the dynamics take over.

I wish we lived in a society where honesty was prized. It is even harder to accept this is presently true in the midst of all the current political turmoil, with Vote Leave not even pretending to appeal against their conviction for Electoral Fraud and with misinformation if not lies flying around the ether as the UK lurches from one crisis to another. Perhaps there are organisations where it is OK to walk into a meeting and admit that your personal life is adrift for reasons beyond your control, but even if you can do that with a few trusted professional colleagues I can’t imagine many departmental meetings would receive such news well, whatever superficially might – or might not – be said at the time. I have heard terms such as ‘(post) menopausal’ used as a critical assessment of women in positions of authority – behind their backs of course – too often to know that saying you’d slept badly due to hot flushes would hardly be well-received.

Yet the reality is every single person in our professional (as well as personal) circle will be facing demons of one sort or another, at least intermittently. At times these will be more acute than at others. At times it will be harder to hold the tears back than another. I will admit I don’t react well to women who appear to turn the taps on as a ploy, but I only had sympathy for the woman I appraised who broke down when discussing the guilt she felt about not always being there to meet her children after school. Honesty in our emotional stress, as in our politics, should not be too much to ask. But it appears to be yet another way in which women (and probably some men) can be side-lined if they don’t play by the rules of the boys’ club. More power to Jacinda Arden and the New Zealand public and media (mainly) who accorded her dignity and praise for her reactions, including tears, to the horrific shootings of Muslims. Would other countries, including my own, only learn from them.

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One Response to Tears Before Bedtime

  1. Catherine Tilley says:

    Thank you for writing this.
    I think in recent years we’ve seen Jacinda Arden and Barak Obama being recognised for showing emotion publically and appropriately, but these were definitely seen as exceptional situations (as they should be – both involved responses to mass murder).

    But for the rest of the time (and the rest of us), emotions at work remain a real minefield. Women who react are labelled emotional, hormonal, or just not ready for leadership. But if you don’t react, you’re a cold fish, unfeeling or lacking in empathy. Despite fantastic progress in all sorts of areas, this still feels like an area where we can’t win – at the very best, we manage to teeter across a difficult tightrope, and hope that we are surrounded by colleagues who understand that we’re all human.

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