Gender Differences in Emotion

Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
Explore the differences in emotional expression between genders in children and adults. Learn how the socialization of emotional expression likely results in these differences.

Emotion: Gender and Socialization

Libby loves taking her kids to the park. Her son, Matt, triumphantly scales the playground equipment while her daughter, Susan, giggles wildly on the swings. One afternoon, Susan's jacket gets stuck on the chain of the swing while she is trying to dismount and she falls to the ground. Libby rushes over and scoops up Susan, soothing her with soft words and kisses. Later in the day, Matt tumbles off stairs leading up to the slide. Libby gives him some quick hugs and kisses and says, 'Be a good boy! Boys are tough!' Matt sucks up his tears and returns to playing.

The above scenario is a common and powerful way that boys and girls are socialized to express emotion. Socialization is the process by which we are taught to behave appropriately based on how others act in our environment. Susan was being socialized by her mother to believe that expressing fear and hurt was appropriate. On the other hand, Matt was being socialized to believe that boys don't show fear or hurt.

Research suggests that the above example is an accurate picture of emotional expression between genders. Boys and girls are socialized very differently when it comes to expressing emotion. For example, despite boys and girls having the same information about emotions, they express emotion differently in different social situations. Girls are much more likely to display emotion in a situation where they have learned it's appropriate to express it. This might explain why more women than men cry at funerals. Both men and women have learned that crying at a funeral is appropriate behavior. Yet, women are more likely to actually do it.

It's possible that the differences in expression of emotion could be related to the consequences boys and girls face for showing too much or too little emotion. Based on socialization, the consequence of showing too much emotion would likely be different for boys versus girls--boys receiving validation and girls receiving support. Boys learn to conceal feelings and girls learn to express them.

This is especially true in the expression of positive emotions. Research suggests that expression of positive emotions is shaped by the parents' emotional expression. For example, mothers have been found to be more emotionally expressive than fathers, specifically with regard to positive emotions. Mothers express significantly more positive emotion, such as happiness, than fathers. When fathers do express emotion, it is more likely to be negative emotion. Therefore, daughters learn to express positive emotion, and boys learn to suppress emotion or express negative emotion.

Adulthood, Gender, and Emotion

These differences in childhood socialization and emotional expression clearly carry over into adulthood, where similar patterns of emotional expression are evident.

Jamie and her husband, Carl, go to a friend's Super Bowl party. At the party they separate, and Carl goes to watch the game with the guys while Jamie sits on the patio with the other women. The social environment on the patio is very emotionally rich, with each one sharing emotional struggles or successes related to work and family. Carl and the other men are more boisterous, especially when their team scores. This conversation is much more activity focused and quite less emotion focused.

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