Theresa May’s resignation tears put her in esteemed company

Theresa May delivers an unusually emotional announcement.
Theresa May delivers an unusually emotional announcement.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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On May 24, British prime minister Theresa May announced her resignation. The usually steely leader, who failed to negotiate a deal for Britain’s exit from the European Union, was emotional as she spoke, choking up during her statement.

British commentators and tweeters had almost as much to say about her tears as about the substance of her message (she’ll be handing over leadership in six weeks). “Let’s save our tears for Theresa May’s victims,” tweeted Daily Mirror associate editor Kevin Maguire, a sentiment that was echoed by many. The Guardian wrote that “May saved her tears for herself. If only she’d shown this humanity before.” The Independent opined, “When she allowed her emotion to show during her resignation speech, Theresa May finally did something good for women.” Metro UK judged that “May’s resignation tears were ones of anger not self-pity.”

The general sentiment seemed to be that May was doing something unusual by crying. Yet her breakdown puts her in a growing club of politicians who have shed tears in public, including the undeniably cool New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and former US president Barack Obama, who was famously open about his emotions. Crying at work, which used to be totally taboo, is now more acceptable.

AOC, for example, thinks it’s important to show vulnerability. In a recent story in the New York Times (paywall) about the documentary Knock Down the House, which shows the campaigns of four female congressional candidates in 2018, she said, “What I love about the vulnerability that we see, throughout this entire film from everybody—it shows the world a different model of strength. You know, I’m like ugly crying on a screen.”

She realizes her political opponents may try to use the tears against her but predicts that it won’t work. “I already know they’re going to screen-grab shots of me crying and make memes out of it. I think the fact that you have nothing to hide is a huge and intimidating strength,” AOC said.

Similarly, Amy Vilela of Las Vegas, who did not win her bid for public office but is also depicted in the film, explained, “As a businesswoman, you’re always told, ‘You should never let them see you cry.’ But at the end, it came down to: Darn it, I wish more of our politicians would cry.”

Indeed, it seems that crying politicians have become more common. Former British prime minister David Cameron cried in 2014 while being praised by a colleague. The consummate tough guy Russian president Vladimir Putin, who plays hockey and famously rides horses shirtless in Siberia, cried during a victory speech in Red Square in 2012. Obama cried at least five times during his two terms as US president.

But emotional displays at work are only OK in certain contexts and more acceptable for men, management professor Kimberly Elsbach at the University of California, Davis, writes in Quartz. In a study she conducted, observers of crying in response to critical feedback attributed tears to weakness and saw them as unprofessional, or manipulative. But study subjects thought it was appropriate to cry in private about negative performance reviews and didn’t judge those tears as harshly. She says that psychologists have found that people tend to perceive weeping women as displaying an inherent trait that makes them less capable, but men’s tears are seen as merely situational and thus less problematic.

Last month, Quartz’s Sarah Todd made the case for crying at work. She argues that emotional displays are a sign of engagement, which means that employers should want employees who occasionally get weepy, based on the findings of Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and author of the new book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. Davey contends that crying is not a problem but the cultural norms that restrict tears are—and those need to change.

It seems natural that May, who failed in her mission to negotiate a Brexit deal and said she leaves with regrets about this failure and “enormous gratitude” to have had the chance to lead the nation she loves, would cry a bit while resigning. Even the Iron Lady, Britain’s only other female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, got weepy when she left office in 1990. May had a tough job to do and the performance review she got was negative. Perhaps if she cried in private it might have seemed more appropriate to some, but her tears are really the least of Britain’s problems now.

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