People punished for expressing their feelings at work


All companies have implicit social norms about how employees are expected to feel in a given situation and how those feelings should be expressed.

All companies have implicit social norms about how employees are expected to feel in a given situation and how those feelings should be expressed.

These norms are known as “feeling rules” and are so ingrained in our social interactions and at work that we rarely pay much attention to them.

When a colleague announces that he is engaged, for example, feelings rules dictate that you must show joy. When your boss says the team just lost an account, the appropriate feeling might be frustration or even anger.

Work-related disappointment is often tolerated, particularly if along with it comes the effort to find a solution.

But not all displays of emotion are treated equally. According to experts, what is or is not considered “appropriate” may depend on the employee involved.

We already know, for example, that women who raise their voices in a professional environment can be considered belligerent, while a man who behaves in the same way would be seen as assertive or even a leader.

But research suggests that it’s not just gender that influences feelings—there’s also a racial distinction.

Data indicate that when workers of color display their emotions, their feelings can trigger different reactions compared to white workers displaying the same emotions.

This forces employees of color to self-observe themselves in the workplace, to prevent colleagues from misinterpreting their emotions to the detriment of their careers — which significantly increases their emotional burden.

‘You see the looks’

Over the years, numerous studies have demonstrated how feelings rules are applied differently to men and women. The recurring conclusion is that people judge emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration much more rigorously when displayed by a woman than by a man.

Researchers concluded that women who cry at work can be considered weak or unprofessional, while it is believed that there are external factors behind men’s tears.

Likewise, men who show anger can often use it as an effective management tool to show competence, while women are considered inept or even antagonistic.

In a 2014 project, 170 undergraduate students watched a video of lawyers’ closing statements at a trial. Participants were asked to provide a verdict and assess the competence of lawyers.

Angry male litigators received the highest ratings in the study, while angry female litigators received the lowest scores. As if that wasn’t enough, the students attributed the women’s anger to their emotional state, but they attributed the men’s anger to the situation itself.

It is difficult to analyze the exact reason for the gender disparity, but it is often caused by ingrained stereotypes, as well as the lack of visibility of women in leadership positions, as opposed to supporting roles.

More recently, research has demonstrated a similar phenomenon in terms of how people view the emotions of non-white employees in the workplace, compared to their white colleagues.

Even if professionals adhere to the “standard” feeling rules, evidence indicates that non-white employees—particularly, black employees—also need to control the emotions they produce in others, lest they risk negative consequences.

Robert, a black media executive in the UK, says that if he gets too excited talking about a project in a professional setting, people around him often perceive that emotion differently than he intended.

“I can see in their body language and in their eyes that they get a little scared of me when I go into totally passionate mode,” says Robert, whose last name is withheld to protect his job security.

“Especially as a black man, I think a lot of people are just afraid of you. You raise your voice slightly and watch the look. People don’t say anything, but you see a look of fear.”

‘Passionate’ vs ‘radical’

The researchers say that experiences like Robert’s happen frequently in the workplace and in everyday interactions.

A study published in April by Stephanie Ortiz, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, near Boston, demonstrates how feelings rules are interpreted substantially differently depending on an employee’s ethnicity.

Ortiz conducted interviews with staff at college LGBTQ+ centers across the United States.

The questions focused on how administrators perceived their emotions when staff tried to discuss issues of racism and discrimination faced by students.

The analyzes revealed that white employees who expressed anger on behalf of students to administrators were considered “passionate about their work.” But non-white staff were considered “radical” and “not viewed as being on staff when expressing anger” at students’ microaggressions or prejudices.

A Mexican interviewee reported that her white supervisor’s outbursts were considered passionate, while she was advised to be less emotional so as not to “scare the neighbors”.

The researchers concluded that internalized racism and unconscious bias often cause the anger and other emotions of nonwhite workers to be perceived, in mostly white spaces, as more “threatening” than similar emotions of white workers.

Because of this, employees of color often need to significantly control their emotions in discussions about race and inequality, to avoid the risk of being perceived as antagonistic.

“Otherwise, your own trauma would be considered unprofessional, and part of promoting an agenda,” says Chad Mandala, a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Georgia, who worked alongside Ortiz on the study. .

Sociologist Adia Wingfield, in her research on feeling rules, has shown that black professionals regularly control their displays of emotion, not because they are inappropriate, but because those emotions can be misinterpreted by others.

She argues that workplace sentiment rules were not necessarily established with workers of color in mind, which gives more room for colleagues to misinterpret them — especially when stereotypes drive these interpretations. And this can have considerable negative impacts.

“If [os trabalhadores não brancos] are interpreted as being angry, annoyed, annoyed and frustrated, this will usually pose a major problem, even if they are not necessarily feeling angry, annoyed, annoyed and frustrated,” says Wingfield, who is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, United States.

“But this perception, particularly by white colleagues, can often get out of hand and create more difficulties and challenges for them at work.”

Unfair interpretation?

An interview with actor Denzel Washington on American television, conducted by anchor Katie Couric, illustrates this problem.

In the interview, Couric asked Washington about politics and whether “Hollywood people should stick to representing.” He responded by saying, “I don’t know who the Hollywood people are. Hollywood is a city that has stars on a sidewalk.”

In a recent podcast, Couric stated that the interview left her “uncomfortable” and “shaken”. She said Washington “kind of jumped on me”.

The reaction on social media was immediate, with many people arguing that Couric’s interpretation was unfair, and Washington’s response was no big deal. Some imagined that if a white actor had responded in the same way, he would not have been considered a threat.

“We know that black men are often stigmatized as dangerous and angry,” comments Stephanie Ortiz.

“The design [de Couric] about Washington’s response… seems too harsh.”

‘Scary task’

The vast effect of the various ways in which sentiment rules are applied to workers of color increases the emotional pressure on them.

Adia Wingfield says that workers need to reconcile many things, such as “doing your job, conforming to the rules of feeling, and staying focused on that self-control to anticipate knowing how people might look at you, to make sure you don’t give reasons for that kind of realization—which, as you can imagine, is a daunting task.”

But failing to do all that can have important consequences, according to Ortiz and Mandala.

“All the participants [dos nossos estudos] talked about how they had to learn the rules by watching other people suffer the consequences, or when they felt them themselves,” says Chad Mandala.

“In other words, they learned what not to do because other people got fired.”

Stephanie Ortiz suggests that instead of having non-white professionals shoulder the burden of self-censorship, workplaces should try to become more inclusive.

Solidarity and awareness of colleagues in workgroups that may only have one or two non-white employees is critical.

“If you are in a group and you observe a single person being attacked during a meeting, or if that person’s emotions are not considered legitimate, you should not wait for a private occasion in an email or in the hallway to tell them later, ‘Look, by the way, I agree with you,'” she says. “You really need to position yourself.”

For Robert, repressing his emotions remains a common and inevitable experience.

Even after winning prestigious awards, he knows he has to walk on eggshells—”hold back,” in his words—to talk to other executives, potential donors, or company directors, preventing his emotions from being misinterpreted.

But he is also taking a stand on this issue.

This type of workplace incident inspired Robert to help underrepresented youth find a way into the communications industry.

He hopes to contribute to a diverse workforce that will bring about lasting change, so that workers in marginalized communities are fully embracing their differences — not just “tolerated,” he said.

“I work with people who haven’t had experiences with other cultures,” says Robert.

“It can be a little scary for them to understand who you really are.”

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