Gender and the Expression of Emotions

Published Categorized as emotions, Understanding emotions

Did you know tend to women smile more than men? I mean it doesn’t surprise me considering women’s tendency towards greater agreeableness, social connection and emotional labour, but I now know it’s been proven by research!

This led me to consider, and further research the impact gender conditioning (or nature, but the nature/nurture debate doesn’t really achieve much in this circumstance in my opinion!) on how we express emotion. It’s easy to intuit its impact but still interesting nonetheless. I appreciate I am about to make sweeping generalisations and comment on trends and I fully know there are always exceptions!

When you consider that females receive the messages from a variety of sources: role models, parents, carers, society to:

  • be caring, giving, nurturing and supportive,
  • prioritise interpersonal relationships,
  • be communal orientated,
  • be expressive, empathetic, sensitive and in touch with emotionality
  • have a passive orientation,
  • make a favourable impression,
  • don’t make a fuss about what is expectated of you!
  • It’s OK to be dependent on others and ask for help.
  • etc

And that males receive the messages to:

  • focus on personal goals and mastering the world,
  • sort problems and have a ‘can do’ attitude,
  • employ rationality,
  • be in control,
  • be self-reliant and don’t expect too much comforting,
  • have an assertive orientation (and aggression is sometimes acceptable, if perceived as warranted),
  • provide and protect for your family,
  • etc

These gender expectations arguably have an impact on how the genders express emotion. Let’s look at a few emotions:

An expression of happiness – or rather – the smile, along with being cheerful Women do smile more than men. It’s not really surprising considering their tendency to adopt a caring role. A smile can put others at ease quickly and quite often women do jobs that require emotional labour of putting everyone else first which can include making people feel at ease and connected to others. Women can fake smiles more readily than men, probably because of this kind of responsibility. (I also tend to think that a wry smile is the expression of the martyr!)

Sadness. Showing sadness is often affiliated to vulnerability so again this is an emotion women express more.

Anger Obviously both males and females express anger but this can be in distinctly different ways. There is a greater tendency for men to express anger as aggression. That same aggression can seem extraordinary when a female displays it. Woman tend to express anger more passively and certainly with less conflict – which might include sulking and moaning about the person who triggered their anger. Also as anger tends to make us put our own needs above those of others, this is also not considered a very feminine trait to express anger as males do!

Jealousy I think these two depictions of jealousy highlight a stereotypical gender difference. When a man gets jealous, he picks up a gun, when a woman does, she hides away and avoids confrontation! (I jest!)

Guilt is an emotion that keeps social order. It prevents us from repeating actions that are considered socially inappropriate or an ‘affront’ to others. As sociability is the domain of the female, it is indeed females who express guilt more openly.

Pride Is an emotion more accepted when expressed by men than women. Women expressing pride contravenes the humbleness and subservience that’s – mostly unconsciously – expected of her.

Fear is another emotion that makes someone appear vulnerable and therefore its expression is often ‘conditioned’ out of men and boys and they can be judged harshly if they express it. For a man to show fear, he might need the skeleton claw of death to be approaching him!

Shame and embarrassment are more often shown by women, and men are more often expected not to show these emotions that indicate being less in control than you should be!

I find it fascinating that we all are born with the same ‘systems’ to feel all emotions but through conditioning, we end up expressing those same emotions in quite different ways. (This will also be true of all individuals, gender aside, as we all received different reactions to the expression of our emotions in our childhoods). But overall, the main message I took from researching this was that we need to encourage females to be assertive and to encourage males to feel it’s OK to show vulnerability!

And while I’m here: It’s OK to Cry is a book that helps males challenge the idea they need to appear tough all the time and helps them become better and more accepting of all emotions so that they might feel they can express exactly how they feel including sharing feelings of vulnerability.