big researchers don’t cry?

This is a guest post from Jozica Kutin. Jozica is a researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne.

At the end of each research interview I tell the person I’ve interviewed how appreciative I am of their time and story, and how I hoped that their goals and dreams work out for them. In this one interview, I then felt the tears welling up in my eyes. My voice started to do that thing it does when you know you’re about to cry, my face started going red. I thought, I’m supposed to be the cool calm and objective one, not the soppy cry-ey one. I think my participant would have noticed the tear covered eyes, the choked up voice, the red face. Are researcher’s supposed to cry?

I was trained as a psychologist, so the poker face was de rigueur, and as a psychologist, you’re not supposed to cry (well not in front of clients). Doctors and business professionals aren’t supposed to cry either: especially women. It can be viewed as “unprofessional”, or that you’re not “objective”. Well it happened to me, about 20 years ago, a young women that I was assessing at a drug and alcohol clinic was telling me about her drug use history, about her childhood, and then about how her baby had died after childbirth. The memory of her in my mind, what she said, and my emotions are as clear now as it was 20 years ago. On this occasion the more I empathy I conveyed the more I felt I was “losing control” of my emotions. I remember, however, that she was not emotional; she had told this story many a time, at many assessments, to many workers. My reaction then felt even more odd, and out of context.

Context is important. Sometimes even in the ‘right’ context, say at a funeral, your crying is not right: I’m crying at my friend’s father’s funeral. I’d never met the guy. I didn’t know what he was like. I wasn’t going to miss him. So I would have looked a bit ridiculous. But I cried nonetheless. A death, of any sort, pain or suffering by anyone, even research participants, is a pain we can all relate to, a pain that triggers emotions.

Public crying is the most difficult, because typically people don’t respond or comfort strangers who are crying. My most profound public crying experience was at the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport, waiting to board my flight back to the Netherlands. I had spent the last 10 days with my grandmother (Baki) who was dying in hospital from ovarian cancer. I said my final goodbye; my uncle and aunty dropped me off at the airport. They returned to the hospital to learn that my Baki had died: she had died once we all had left the hospital (now I’m crying again as I write this). My phone rang at the departure gate. It was quiet. I answered. I sobbed loudly while I was on the phone and after; trying to pull myself together for the flight. Not one person came up to me to ask if I was ok. Crying in public like that makes you feel very alone.


Do researchers cry?

It’s not supposed to happen. You are supposed to be this objective data collecting machine. When I worked as a researcher at a youth drug and alcohol centre, people would comment “Oh that must be tough”. Well it kind of wasn’t. I was sitting at my desk, just crunching numbers, collecting data from other practitioners, and publishing papers and reports. And even though the findings were devastating, I didn’t have the young woman in front of me, telling me her story, a story of challenge, abuse, self-harm, drug use, and hopefully hope. I never spoke to clients or listened to their stories, it wasn’t part of my job. (Read my co-author and colleague Kat Daley’s work—her supervisor cried at the launch of her book.)

My PhD research is exploring how economic abuse manifests in young adult relationships. My first paper was based on the analysis of ABS survey data from 17,050 adults. The next phase of my PhD takes me out of my analytical comfort zone: narrative interviews with young adults who have experienced economic abuse. Their narratives usually start with the money issues, but these are never in isolation from the emotional manipulation and abuse, the control, the threat of physical or verbal abuse, and in some cases savage physical attacks. For the majority, it’s the first time they have told their stories— they are not engaged in the service systems—they’ve responded to a research recruitment advertisement. It’s the first time too that I’m hearing their stories. Young women terrorised, living in war-zone conditions, but living with hope that the relationship will work, that their children will have an intact family. They all have hopes for the future. They all have goals and are kicking them, despite—or because of—the experiences they have had. This is when it gets emotional for me, I’ve realised. Every young person should be filled with their dreams and hopes for the future, not abuse, violence and control.

Research interviewing can be emotionally distressing. I suspect most people don’t tell their supervisors or colleagues that they may have cried or choked up because of embarrassment or shame.

There are important ethical and supervisory mechanisms that need to be in place when you are researching sensitive topics. Students, supervisors and seasoned researchers shouldn’t fear crying or tearing up in the research interview. If in doubt, read Kathleen Cowles’ powerful work. We hold back discussion of this issue, as much as we try to hold back the tears: trying to be “big” researchers. The possibility of crying in this context needs to become part of the discussion around “managing interviewer risk”, beyond the advice of “whatever you do, don’t cry”.

So if the toe wigging and tongue biting are not working, and you find yourself tearing up during an interview, it’s important not to be hard on yourself. While you may think your “research participant” might find it odd, or you find it embarrassing, it is often viewed in a positive light by the person that you’re with. Interviewer crying reminds and confirms for us, and the people that we are interviewing, that what they have endured was a traumatic and emotional experience. It’s not just data, it’s their full and emotional life.

I’m curious if other PhDs have cried during an interview when a comment touched a raw nerve. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. How was crying received by the participant?  Did you tell your supervisor/colleague/mentor and how did they react?


Image credit: Flickr Commons: Guy Mayer

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Emotion, emotional research, interview, interviews, research, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to big researchers don’t cry?

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    I don’t think I’ve cried during an interview, though I’ve come close plenty of times. I have cried during other research encounters though, one experience in particular sticks in my mind for breaking down all the conventional researcher/researched barriers, and that was an ethnography of dementia wards, in which three of us participated as care assistants. This was an environment where both patients and staff regularly displayed a whole range of emotions and it would have been impossible to retain a distant and detached persona. In addition to what one might have expected to experience doing that job, there were conversations with staff as well as private moments on the ward or while writing up fieldnotes which prompted tears, and thinking back now almost 10 years later these things can still cause me to cry. One of the things that the three of us as researchers struggled with at the time was the different degrees of openness permitted to us with respect to different audiences, and this is something there appears to be little guidance on. Where were we to draw the line with our degree of emotional involvement in our research site? How should we write about these experiences? Should anything be done with them – should we share them with each other? Or with the wider research team to whom we reported? Or perhaps explore them further with our participants? We tried bits of all these things – sharing experiences between the three of us became an informal but important experience, but we never found much comfort or meaning in any attempt to share beyond this – our first report back to the research team included some of this personal account and we found ourselves interrogated for our lack of objectivity and it was suggested we do some more research training in order to develop our fieldwork skills. After this we becane better at separating the various accounts, the personal from the official record of the experience. I think in some ways we were very lucky that there were three of us to have share and develop some closer collective connection to the experience, but the difficulty finding appropriate registers in which to share this kind of experience continues to be a source of frustration to me in doing research.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. elinekieft says:

    So lovely to read, thank you for opening this discussion. I have cried during many interviews, simply because I was moved by what the participant told me. Not the sobbing tears type of uncontrollable crying, but definitely having wet eyes… I think this is a natural (and desirable) human trait, that we can feel empathy and compassion, that we literally “feel with” the other. Although this does raise questions about our stance as researchers, in anthropology we speak of ‘intersubjectivity’ – data arising between participant and researcher. All aspects of the human experience are part of that, we cannot compartmentalise emotions from experience, cognition as different to the body, etc.

    I’m working on developing a ‘somatics toolkit’ for anthropology students, of which this is going to be one strand (the other is using the body as research instrument throughout the entire research cycle). Would be interesting to hear your feedback on that. Website will go online in a few weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Raquel says:

    This is a fantastic post, thank you very much Jozica! In my opinion, researchers should talk more and write more about their emotions, because above all they influence the way we see, deal, analyse and present our findings. One of the sections of my methods chapter (PhD thesis) was exactly on the role of emotions, how they influenced me and how I had to come to terms regarding how I felt and how what I felt was having an impact on my data analysis (e.g. not including the stories of interviewees who irritated me, who patronised me or who did not share my worldviews). Regarding crying, for me, it happens when I go to bed on the day of the interview and I start going through everything I’ve heard. My research looks at former politically violent militants. some of them in organisations who’ve killed and injured fellow human beings. So, some of the stories are kind of hard to swallow and can still nowadays (after researching this topic for over 7 years) make me feel physically sick. However, I stick to my point that the reflection and the transparency regarding these processes are the most important, but, at the same time, I think we need better support networks as researchers to talk and make sense of these experiences. This post is a great way of starting these conversations! So, thanks!


  4. Anne Kershaw says:

    You raise a fascinating question here. I recently heard someone reflect on how emotionally draining qualitative/narrative research is because you have to be so ‘in the moment’ – and he was researching the experiences of arts audiences, not something as confronting as survivors of financial abuse! The flip side is when researchers seem to move completely into the subjective realm (examples attached) which I personally find just as limiting. Its a reflective question we don’t give enough attention to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sara Cotterall says:

    Thanks Jozica. Your post resonated with one particular experience I had during my PhD when interviewing an international PhD participant (let’s call her Monica) about her first days in the new country.

    Monica’s 3 year old son had a major epileptic fit in the middle of the night so she rushed to the hospital with him, leaving her husband and other son (and wallet and phone) at home.

    Eventually her child’s condition was stabilised and Monica started to think about contacting her husband. She did not know where she was, had no money or way of phoning home and had not eaten for more than 24 hours. She did not ask for help, being new to the country and not knowing what was possible …

    Eventually Monica plucked up courage to ask the parent of another child in the same ward if she could borrow his phone and called her husband, who was beside himself with worry.

    And yes, I teared up as Monica told me her story. I was not embarrassed and I don’t think she was either. But what really shocked me was that she had never shared this story with her PhD supervisors. In fact her supervisors never learned about her son’s epilepsy (despite his experiencing chronic attacks throughout her PhD studies) because she did not feel it was appropriate to share her personal story with them.

    Thanks for your wonderful post Jozica.



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