WASHINGTON — When a friend of mine got promoted to a supervisory job, the first thing he did was install a protective device in his office. It was a box of tissues.
Because he was familiar with workplace behavior, he knew that female employees would inevitably come to see him to discuss a problem, and that a certain percentage of them would weep. Like all men on Earth — Bedouin tribesmen, hooligans from Liverpool, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc. — my friend gets flustered in the presence of a weeping woman. Hence the tissues, which he would offer the weeper. This would (1) give him something to do with his hands other than fidget haplessly; (2) allow him to feel useful; and (3) create at least the illusion of empathy.
Gina Barreca: Your friend is atypical.
Gene: What are you doing here?
Gina: Trust me, this is not a topic you want to explore alone. My feminist creds will give you cover. My point is that, despite some underlying cynicism, your friend was behaving better than most men would have in that situation. Most men see a crying woman and think: "What is this thing? Whatever it is, it appears to be malfunctioning. Unless I can fix it, I'm gonna have to stomp it to put it out of its misery."
Gene: You're not going to castigate me for sexism?
Gina: No, your premise is valid. Women are porous. We leak things. We ooze milk. We bleed. And yes, we shed tears when sad or happy or frustrated or angry or wistful or insecure or parsoquaceous, an emotion I just made up but that would definitely make women cry. The problem is that instead of recognizing this to be a normal, gender-specific trait no more aberrant than having higher voices or lower centers of gravity, men find leaking women to be a problem that must be solved, as though we were a perforated tire and they need to quickly find some Loctite. What men should do is learn from the tears — accept them as a valuable form of nonverbal communication. And if the tears are disturbing to such an extent that they create an uncomfortable work environment, please remember that men in the workplace can be insufferable in their own ways, such as when they adopt that smug, professorial corrective attitude in dealing with women, as though we were ninnies.
Gene: Loctite is a sealant for wobbly screws, not for tires. You probably were thinking of Fix-A-Flat.
Gene: Okay, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the new speaker of the House.
Gina: Boehner the Rainer? Not applicable to this discussion. Women try not to cry in the workplace; when we do, it's over meaningful, serious things such as career setbacks or professional slights. Boehner's tears, and Glenn Beck's, are trivial — tears of maudlin sentiment, because they have mythologized and melodramatized the importance of their own lives. It's repellent.
Gene: We actually agree on this. I can't take men's tears seriously. Women's, I do.
Gina: Prove it.
Gene: A few days after my wife and I had put down a deposit on the little rowhouse that she'd fallen in love with, I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of sniffling coming from downstairs. I followed this sound to its source, a small weeping woman sitting forlornly at the kitchen table. "We've made a terrible mistake," she said. "The house is too small for us. It's all my fault." At that point, in something of an out-of-body experience, I heard a man's voice speaking. What I heard it say was: "It's okay. We can dig out the basement and make two extra rooms." And then I heard it say, "I don't care what it costs."
Gina: What did it cost?
Gene: Eighty G's. I paid $80,000 to make a woman happy.
Gina: You did not.
Gene: Yes, I did!
Gina: You paid $80,000 to make a woman stop crying.
Gina: A very expensive can of Fix-A-Flat.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Chat with him online at noon March 1 at www.washingtonpost.com.