Humans are inherently emotional beings, and in relationships as well as in the working environment emotion is an essential part of communication.How a person is understood, and how their input is valued, can be very different depending on who is speaking, with implications for power relations at every level of society.
Very commonly, without even realising it,we tend to stigmatise emotion when someone else expresses it, and to this day traditional gender stereotypes are preventing women from being effectively heard in many instances. Both men and women are socialised to suppress certain emotions, very often in reference to their gender. Men often grow up being told that ‘big boys don’t cry’, while when a woman feels strongly about an issue,she is more likely to be labelled as ‘emotional’ or ‘overreacting’.
In the work environment, each person has the responsibility to self-regulate their emotions within the professional context, yet everyone should have the space to express emotion, within appropriate boundaries, and to be heard.
When it comes to displays of emotion such as frustration, annoyance or disappointment, the more forceful or uncompromising way that many men tend to express emotion is often interpreted as ‘passion’ or ‘strength’. However when women share what they are experiencing with these kinds of emotions, it is more likely to be perceived negatively as ‘overbearing’ or ‘unbalanced’.
The difference in the way society perceives men and women when they display similar levels of emotion is a reflection of the unconscious gender bias rather than the relative abzilities of men and women. When women are viewed as ‘emotional’, this tends to have the effect that others mistakenly perceive them as less rational, and this trivialises and minimises the value and the impact of what they are communicating.
Any group that is silenced is effectively deprived of power, and this reinforces inequalities in our society.
There is a need to reflect on how we listen, and to develop awareness around normalising our perception and internalisation of emotion – irrespective of who is speaking – to ensure we are all heard in the workplace and in our relationships. Suppressing emotion doesn’t make it go away, and bottling up strong feelings can have significant consequences, for women as well as for men.
The frustration of not being heard - coupled with the fact that this means the situation usually remains unaddressed - can be extremely isolating and demotivating, and it can take a toll on the person’s mental health. I have personally seen patients who specifically seek professional help because they struggle to express their emotions.
On an individual level, it is very difficult to remain engaged if you feel that your contribution is not acknowledged. If women aren’t heard with the same attention as their male counterparts when they voice concerns in certain contexts, it is little wonder that many find it so difficult to speak out when they face harassment, abuse, or domestic violence.
For a team of people working together, especially when they are passionate about what they do, a breakdown in communication such as this can be every bit as damaging in the corporate setting as it can be in a relationship.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to ensuring that everyone’s perspective is heard and respected objectively. Multi-disciplinary teams of mental health professionals are available to work closely with individuals in need of solutions for their unique situations, and it is encouraged to seek support if you are feeling unheard, either at work or at home.
That said, while we use our expert knowledge to provide appropriate tools and guidance, the solutions must come from the lived experience of the person or team involved to ensure that proper understanding is achieved in their specific context.
As a starting point, I believe that we need to become more comfortable with expressions of emotion from both sexes and normalise this in our society. Reflecting on why some voices carry seemingly ‘natural’ authority in our daily lives and developing the necessary listening skills can go a long way towards helping us to truly hear and ensure that we can all be heard fairly. So speak up, listen with understanding, and let’s grow together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Buko Toyi is an occupational therapist pracisting at Netcare Akeso in Alberton.