Emotional reactions are a minefield of gender stereotypes. Men are expected to be strong — which often plays out as taciturn, logical, and controlled. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be empathetic — expressive, comforting, and, to an extent, uncontrolled and emotionally volatile. Previous research establishes the masculine approach as the gold standard for public behavior: Crying at work is met with disdain, induces strong feelings of shame, and can have damning consequences, which typically fall on female shoulders.
New research published in the journal Emotion, however, shows that for women, the line is even more difficult to walk.
Researchers at Humbolt University and the University of Haifa predicted that since what they called “manly restraint” — i.e., don’t cry in public — is generally viewed as a positive quality in Western culture, people who showed restraint would be rated as more in control of their emotions. To test this, they paired pictures chosen to cause either anger or sadness with videos of men and women reacting with the appropriate emotion. In one condition, the videos showed the men and women reacting immediately. In another, the experimenters inserted a pause before the reaction to simulate emotional restraint. Participants were then asked to rate the subjects’ emotional competence, intelligence, and authenticity.
As predicted, images of men who paused before reacting — thus showing “restraint” — were viewed as more emotionally competent than men who reacted immediately. But the researchers found that the exact opposite was true for women.
Women who showed restraint were rated as less emotionally competent than women who reacted immediately. Furthermore, these results were compounded when participants rated the subjects’ intelligence and authenticity: Men who paused before reacting were seen as more intelligent, competent and authentic, while women who paused were seen as not only less emotionally competent, but less intelligent and authentic overall, as if they were “faking.”
The authors suggest that this is caused by “shifting standards,” or stereotypes that cause us to unconsciously evaluate men and women differently.
“The impression arises that if someone who is expected to be emotionally competent needs too much time, ‘something must be wrong,’” they write. “In consequence, showing restrained or ‘manly’ emotional reactions has positive consequences only for men.”
These stereotypes can have negative consequences for men, too — both men and women can be naturally emotional, and both men and women can be naturally restrained. In public, both are judged based on preconceived ideas of how they should act given their gender.
Cultural norms, however, are biased towards the masculine, particularly in the workplace. Office temperatures are calibrated based on the needs of a 40-year-old man. Workplace dress codes are clearly delineated for men, while women must navigate the murky space between attractive and sexy, between looking too feminine and not feminine enough.
This research reveals yet another line to walk. For better or worse, emotional restraint is the preferred mode of office culture, and to a large extent of public life. But showing restraint also goes against stereotypes of how a woman should act when she’s being wholly natural. Thus, if a woman is showing restraint, she’s interpreted as either being calculating — or as less intelligent or emotionally competent than she should be.
Ultimately, women are caught in a yet another catch-22. They must be emotional, but not too emotional, restrained, but not too restrained. In other words: Show your sadness, but don’t you dare cry.