People cry. Scientists are people. Therefore, scientists cry. So why is it that scientists and academics can get so freaked out by a colleague or student crying?
I cried through my entire defense. I was completely embarrassed by it at the time, but, fortunately, my committee carried on without making a fuss over it. I think several things contributed to me crying in that situation. First, I was stressed. For me, crying is very much a stress release (though, fortunately, generally holds off until after the stressful situation is over – just not in this particular situation!) Second, I had just finished giving my talk, which ended with the much longer acknowledgments that are typical of defense talks. That included acknowledging my father. My father and I have always been very close, and he was my field assistant for two summers when I was a grad student. Then, while I was finishing up, he had a major stroke. So, his attendance at my defense talk was a huge, emotional event. It was very hard to keep it together after talking about him. Third, my defense started out with the chapter that I was least confident in, which was a strategic mistake on my part.* Fourth, I’m a woman. I love this piece by Ben Barres on women in science. Barres has a somewhat unusual perspective on this, as someone who is transgender. Most relevant to this post is that, in the box on his personal experiences, he says:
There was one innate difference that I was surprised to learn is apparently under direct control of testosterone in adults – the ability to cry easily, which I largely lost upon starting hormone treatment. Likewise, male-to-female transgendered individuals gain the ability to cry more readily.
Or, as one of my mentors put it when I discussed my defense after the fact, “If we’re going to have more women in science – and I hope we will – we’re going to have more crying in science”. The Barres piece came out a few months after my defense, and those lines made a huge impression on me when I read them.
I was thinking about this again recently after seeing some tweets where a woman scientist who cried at a meeting was told that she needed to not act like a teenage girl. Clearly that is not a supportive response. But it reminded me that this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about. I also think about this whenever I hear a colleague say that students cry in their offices to try to manipulate them. I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I’d guess that, more often, the student is mortified about having cried in front of his/her professor. And this topic comes up sometimes when I’m meeting with grad students and postdocs (most often while traveling to give seminars). They generally seem to be shocked to hear that I cried through my defense.
As is probably true of most faculty, I have had students cry in my office. As far as I can tell, it seems to be mostly caused by frustration, anxiety, stress, or embarrassment. When it happens, I generally make sure a box of tissues is within arm’s reach for the student, reassure them that they shouldn’t be concerned about crying, and offer that we can take a break and resume the meeting another time if they’d prefer. As many people know from personal experience, once you start crying, it can be very hard to stop. And, if the person is focused on just trying to stop crying (and on embarrassment about crying), it might not be the most productive meeting. Though, at the same time, I always wonder if this sends the message that crying is wrong or unacceptable. Part of me wants to treat it the way my committee did – just ignore it and continue on with the meeting. I want to be compassionate and understanding without stigmatizing crying, and it can be hard to figure out what approach will best accomplish those goals. (Thoughts and suggestions would be very much appreciated!)
The other thing that can make it tricky to figure out how to respond is that, as was the case with me crying at my defense, the crying may be partially (or entirely) related to something going on in one’s personal life. This again makes it tricky to figure out whether to reach out to the person to check in to make sure things are okay, or to ignore it (to hopefully send the message that crying isn’t a big deal). Plus, if the person cried in a (semi)public setting, I want to avoid having the person be smothered by well-meaning people checking in on them. Still, I tend to err on the side of checking in. I don’t want someone who is going through a rough patch to feel like no one cares. In these cases, I try to reach out in a way that makes it clear that it’s totally fine for them to ignore my email, but that I’m happy to meet if that would be of interest to them.
In the end, I hope that we see more crying in science – because, as discussed above, that will probably mean that there are more women in science. But what I most hope is that people stop viewing crying as someone being immature or emotionally manipulative, and instead view it as a natural form of emotion that simply indicates that the person is passionate or stressed or concerned or tired or anxious or frustrated – or, more simply, that they are human.
*This chapter wasn’t the first chapter in my dissertation, but the first chapter had already been published, so wasn’t discussed much.