Are Adults Judged Negatively for Crying?

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Adult Crying

"It's my party and I'll cry if I want to" sang teeny-bopper Lesley Gore in the 1963 chart-topper by the same name. But grownups take heed: Society may not be as accepting of crying in adults as they are for the younger set.

Stephanie Shields, Penn State professor of psychology and women's studies, and doctoral candidate Leah Warner conducted research on gender and perceptions of crying in adults, and their results will be included as a co-authored chapter in the forthcoming book, "Group Dynamics and Emotional Expression" (Cambridge University Press).

"Emotion-induced crying is a distinctly human trait, said Shields. "An adult's tears can be powerful elicitors of concern and sympathy. But we found that tears can also invite scorn or suspicion regarding the crying person's motives."

According to Shields, "When tears are shed, they have a powerful effect on others, so powerful that crying is understood as not only a reflection of internal feelings but also as a form of social communication. The way tears are judged by others is affected by many factors, including the gender of both the crier and observer, whether the tears are perceived as angry or sad, and perhaps most importantly among adults, whether the observer 'reads' the crier's tears as genuine or manipulative."

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Shields and Warner believe that a shift has taken place since the 1980s, when studies showed that society judged men's tears to be inappropriate. "Norms appear to be changing, especially since Sept. 11, 2001," Shields said. Today, both men's and women's tears are deemed most acceptable in extreme situations, such as the death of a loved one or a relationship break-up which the person is perceived to have no control over, as opposed to situations deemed less severe, such as a computer crash. In their study, Warner and Shields found that, in serious situations, tears were viewed positively regardless of the crier's gender, race or the emotional motivation (anger or sadness) behind the tears.

Of course, there are many levels of crying, from slightly moist eyes to all-out bawling. And how you cry does make a difference. A moist eye is a signal of strong emotion under control, and Warner and Shields found that both men and women were looked at more positively when they teared up than when they cried. That said, men get more of the benefit of the doubt overall.

One of the most intriguing findings of their research, Shields and Warner believe, is that research participants - both women and men - rated men who merely teared up more positively than any other crier in any of the scenarios they tested.

It seems that at least part of the moist-eye male advantage may come from stereotypic suspicions about women's tears. When Shields and Warner asked their respondents to justify their ratings, they found, "while women were believed to cry more intensely, they were also judged better able to control their tear flow, perhaps suggesting that they purposely displayed more intense tears than men."

Or, as Lesley Gore put it, "I'll cry if I want to."

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