Illustration by Ashley Siebels
There’s a lot of conflicting advice on whether workplace weeping is appropriate.
MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski says you’ll regret it if you do: “when you cry, you give away power.”
That is consistent with older schools of thought that say workplace crying is a sign of weakness, a loss of self-control that reminds co-workers of your immaturity. There’s even a whole self-help career book against it directed at young women: “If You Have to Cry, Go Outside.”
Part of the stigma against crying at work is the assumption that women are more likely to do it, and that as a result it signals powerlessness.
But studies suggest that men cry at work, too.
Men and women cry at work for different reasons
Author Anne Kreamer, who wrote the book Emotions at Work, found that crying at work is not a behavior limited entirely by gender, but that instead some people are more likely to cry in the office. Those who do: people who take slights more personally.
“Two obvious categories of people emerged, the criers and the non-criers, respectively constituting 25 percent and 75 percent of the total population — but 41 percent and 59 percent of women,” Kreamer wrote.
The common bonds among those who cried at work is that it was their last resort after hitting something or shouting: “In the survey, we found that there was a kind of emotional cascade that overwhelmed criers regardless of the provocation. At first they almost always have the urge to express their feelings physically, but when prevented by social custom from doing so, they next feel the impulse to lash out verbally — and then, when constrained by workplace norms from showing anger directly, they end up crying.”
How crying changes us
As for why people cry, Kreamer found that men were more likely to weep over a personal loss or sadness, like a death, while women were more likely to tear up about work conflicts: “being unfairly blamed or criticized, someone else taking credit for work.”
Men and women also react differently after crying, it appears.
A more casual survey of 700 Americans in 2011 found that 41% of women had cried at work while only 9% of men had. And the men who did cry felt great about it: “their minds felt sharper, the future seemed brighter, and they felt more physically relaxed and in control.”
Meanwhile, the women who cried felt “rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test.”
But crying is a part of everyone’s career, and it should not be seen as a sign of shame or failure. It’s ok to cry. Here’s why.
You’re not alone. Your favorite leaders cry at work, too.
Many high-profile people in positions of power say they do it. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has admitted to crying at work and she wants it to be less of a taboo because she believes we’re the same emotional people on and off the clock: “all of us [are] emotional beings and it’s okay for us to share that emotion at work.”
Sandberg is referring to how crying can be seen as a sign of dedication and passion.
And employers like seeing that. Researchers have even found that you can work crying to your advantage, if you learn how to phrase the explanation. Those who attributed their tears to “passion” benefitted far more than those who chalked up their crying to “emotion.”
Harvard researcher Elizabeth Bailey Wolf found that people who said they were crying because of their passionate investment to the job were seen as more competent than people who blamed their tears on just being “emotional about the things I care about.”
In fact, Steve Jobs was known for crying to manipulate people into getting his way, to show how invested he was. Jobs’ former Apple employee Ken Segall said that Jobs cried “usually to get his way” in a business deal.
Other famous male criers: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner whom Politico dubbed “Weeper of the House,” and of course, basketball legend Michael Jordan, whose teary face became an internet meme.
We don’t endorse doing this, because too many theatrical tears too often and your tears will look insincere. But just know that you’re not alone in crying. Even Apple CEOs have done it frequently and publicly.
What to do if you start crying, or witness someone crying
1. Don’t apologize. Acknowledge the situation but don’t beat yourself up about crying, on top of whatever frustration you’re already feeling.
2. Reaffirm that you’re in control. In fact, what often makes crying worse is the feeling of the loss of control, that you shouldn’t be doing it. Instead of fighting that, tell yourself you have every right to your tears. Paradoxically, because it’s an empowering thought, the idea that you have every right to cry may end tears that come from helplessness.
3. Look at the cause. Instead of worrying about the tears themselves, focus your energies on understanding the feelings behind why you’re crying. There is a trigger behind it, and finding that trigger may help you navigate your reaction.
4. Think physically. Oftentimes, when crying happens at work, it’s an involuntary bodily response to helplessness, stress or frustration. Sometimes you can gain mastery over your reaction just by stopping your physical reactions.