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stone-cold stoicism: is there room for emotion in the workplace?

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So often in life I am a walking exhibition of a mini tornado behind reinforced concrete: listen closely and you may hear it rattle and rile me up. I refer to, in perhaps not the best metaphor, my aim to portray myself stoically and negate all evidence of emotion in my places of work.This isn’t healthy, as I’m sure you are all aware, but this is the way the business cultures I am subjected to deem it necessary for me to function lest I be deemed weak or, worse yet, a “crier”.

Stoicism is something that has endured from the early days of politics into business. I first came across the actual word “stoic” when studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in year 12. The word was used to describe Brutus in his governance, in his plotting and his betrayal of his friendly foe Julius Caesar. To keep a poker face, like Brutus and his successors, is to supposedly win in business and capitalist endeavours because it is to keep your opponents guessing as to your next move. It gives you the upper hand to be able to exploit and leave your – shall we say – victims reeling when you cash in on your patriarchal dividend: ‘E tu, Brute?’

Men are, unfortunately, subjected to this rule of stoicism throughout their lives due to how masculinity has been constructed. This extends beyond the professional world and manifests itself in a variety of mental health impacts, including depression. But there is an inherent onus on women to keep a lid on our “rollercoaster” of emotions in business, when in other aspects of life a mini-meltdown may be written off as a gender trait (as it’s constructed to be believed). Masculine business cultures set up emotiveness as a handicap, as something to be scoffed at as a lack of professionalism, setting up even more barriers beyond gender pay gaps and a lack of career advancement for women. To be accepted as a contender in the business arena, it is expected of women to keep the control panel of their“wild ride” firmly set to off.

But emotion in business seems a double edged sword. Aggressive masculinity is, at times, an admired professional and personal trait for men, but not appropriate for women as dictated by the stringent laws of ladyhood. In popular culture, women who use what might be considered less dignified modes of getting their work done often attract criticism, whereas such characterisation in a male evokes little. Take, for example, Mandy McElhinny’s portrayal of Woman’s Day editor Nene King: screaming at the top of her lungs to her superiors and subordinates alike in the ABC’s recent miniseries Paper Giants: Magazine Wars. Nene had viewing partners of mine commenting on how vulgar she was.

Nene’s not the only one. While women these days so often cop the tag “b*tch”, this isn’t too dissimilar to the title of “she wolf”, which historical figures of female power endured as explained in Helen Castor’s work on Britain’s early queens.Whether you’re a fictional female or flesh and blood, it is an age old problem: to be a domineering woman in power portraying what are perceived as masculine characteristics and be so readily slandered.

Anticipating women – and men – as completely stoic in business is to deny them humanity.To invite emotion into workplaces, beyond the often strategic practice of pledging funds to philanthropic causes, could potentially lead to more ethical business as it would lead to more transparent deals. Perhaps I’m speaking out of personal necessity here but frankly, the idea of keeping a stiff upper lip is something that needs to be left for stiffs alone.

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