I was nineteen the first time a supervisor noticed I was going through a rough patch and told me I needed to “fake it til I make it” so that our boss wouldn’t be concerned. I wasn’t crying at work, I wasn’t ranting and cursing, I was just having a bad day. I had been yelled at by our other boss, and I was going through some things, and it took the pep right out of me. And still, there was that advice: fake it til you make it.
We fake it til we make it in a lot of areas, regarding our emotions. Emotional displays outside of particular settings are frowned upon, and certain emotional revelations and experiences are stigmatized so that we are forced to bury them deep down. Despite the fact that one in four adults in the United States suffers from a mental illness, there is an expectation that, at least in public, we will all put on a happy face and pretend like everything is fine. There is an expectation that we will do our best not to make ourselves burdensome, or not to make anyone else uncomfortable; there is an expectation that we will not let our mental health or our emotional state get in the way of our productivity, or anyone else’s.
I suspect that there are a couple of reasons why emotional displays and processes are so frowned upon in the workplace, and the first is that, given that most professional environments used to be men-only, there was an expectation of the stoicism and lack of emotionality traditionally associated with masculinity. In common narratives, it is women who are painted as being overly emotional-~-the word “hysterical” actually has the same root as the Latin word for “uterus”, because of the alleged relationship between femininity and a lack of emotional control. The reality is that women do not experience more emotions than men, but are likely socialized to express them more often, or to express them differently. Popular understanding of this indicates that certain emotions like pride or anger are considered masculine, but others like sadness or irritability are considered more feminine. And unsurprisingly, it’s really the second set that tends to be most unacceptable at work. You can be frustrated, you can be pleased, you can be annoyed, but heaven forbid you are just upset…that, you need to bury deep down.
In addition, we have created a false dichotomy, also along gendered lines, that pits emotions against rationality. Never mind that all “rational” decision-making is based on value judgments and that value is assigned through emotional processes; the reality is, we paint these two concepts as diametrically opposed, and we only value one at work. Following along these lines, we tend to value certain kinds of intelligence, such as logical-mathematical intelligence and linguistic intelligence over other kinds, such as intra-personal intelligence, in the workplace (and we compensate individuals who utilize these different kinds of intelligence accordingly).
The second reason I think we frown on emotionality is that we see it as not only irrational but also as a distraction. If you’re thinking about your feelings, you can’t be doing your work, right? Consequently, many work environments function such that employees are expected to engage in emotional labor no matter what their actual position entails, because they are forced to pretend at emotions that they do not really feel in order to “fake it until they make it”. While this may seem like it is to be expected in service-oriented positions which necessarily function as emotional labor (such as food service or elder care), the attitude that emotions are not to be seen or heard has seeped into other environments as well, which is why 19-year-old googles-things-for-people-all-day intern me was instructed to bury my feelings while at work. A system which necessarily treats people as inputs in place to help achieve an output, a system which measures value based on what a person contributes to the bottom line, can’t really treat people as people. We have allowed the creation of a system that too often presumes that those within it are essentially functionaries (oh, how my inner college debater is showing now…), and which consequently creates potentially toxic environments for individuals who are unable to simply squash down their feelings.
It’s one thing to say that crying at your desk or making a scene in the break room impacts other people, but at the point at which individuals are expected not to exhibit any emotion which might elicit concern (including, I assume, being quite and frowning, if my experience is anything to go by), we’ve gone too far. Shaming people for experiencing their emotions creates a chilling effect on meaningful relationships in the workplace; it creates barriers to helping people address real problems that might be preventing them not only from working effectively but from living well, and it cuts people off from those who might otherwise serve as important resources for them. It makes work environments potentially hostile for anyone suffering from any kind of mental illness, and potentially cuts people off from paths to recovery. That’s something we should be trying to correct, but I am not sure how well we are.
The reality is that painting any display of non-positive emotion as “unprofessional” just serves to reinforce a power structure within work environments that disadvantages women and other gender minorities, and individuals who are neurodivergent or experiencing mental illness. Professionalism and respectability politics are just mechanisms to punish individuals who don’t meet the standard set by the in-group, in this case neurotypical men. In a world where emotionality is already frowned upon, writing it off as “unprofessional” merely serves to create consequences for having the audacity to both be human and to live out that humanity in front of other humans, and that is an incredible shame.