Most people have an impressively wide spectrum of emotions – but many of us don’t show all of them. As it turns out, gender has a lot to do with that.
Two disclaimers to start this piece: First, the gender differences in expression of emotion described in this piece apply to various cultural contexts (North- and South-America, Europe and Asia) but cannot said to be universal. Second, the research findings upon which this entry relies treat gender as a binary variable, and thus tell us very little about how people who fall somewhere along or outside of the gender spectrum express their feelings.
When it comes to positive emotions, like happiness, empathy or affection, women tend to have greater expressivity than men. Women often internalise negative emotions, including sadness, fear, anxiety, shame, anger and guilt, meaning they keep these feelings to themselves. The prescript for women is to be accommodating to others, to facilitate social relations and be nurturing. Showing emotions like empathy conforms to that norm.
There is one emotion that men display markedly more often than women. You guessed it: anger. This is in line with the assertive, individualistic, independent or aggressive behaviour that is traditionally seen as masculine and therefore expected from men. According to these same masculinity norms, men must keep more ‘tender’ negative emotions, like anxiety or shame, to themselves.
The consequences of suppressing the good part of our emotional spectrum are not to be understated. Hiding how we feel can lead to frustration and stress, it inhibits our relationships and makes it very difficult for our loved ones to support us properly. And it’s draining to always pretend to be happy or empathetic, courageous or tough. The stigma around mental health issues like depression particularly hurts men, who more often hesitate to seek help. Significantly higher suicide rates amongst men are one painful result of that. Another example is that young girls with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder turn out to be so good at suppressing certain emotional expressions that their conditions remain undiagnosed – they don’t display the same symptoms as boys and men, based on which their developmental disorders are usually identified.
Breaking gender norms around emotional expression, fortunately, is straightforward. Step one: Recognise when you’re judging a person for showing certain emotions, and simply let them be. You don’t need to fully understand or support them, but do remember that everyone is entitled to their feelings. Step two: Allow yourself to express what you feel. And if you feel like others do not allow you because of gender norms – think of an angry woman being portrayed as mad or unreasonable – explicitly state that you wish to be treated differently. That is challenging, and we hope that referring others to this piece makes it a little bit easier.