In defense of crying at work

Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean In that it’s cool to cry at work. Anne Kreamer reports in her book It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace (2011) that 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men had cried in front of others at work and it had not impacted them negatively. Dr. Peggy Drexler, in a recent article for The Daily Beast, argues that crying at work, particularly in response to institutional frustration or stress (not because of perceived personal criticism), can actually be productive by creating bonds, clearing tension, and fostering empathy among co-workers.

And yet — and yet.

And yet there’s still a debate over whether crying is something to embrace, or avoid at all costs. That’s because when people talk about crying at work, they mostly mean women crying at work. Corporate culture is one that’s still very much male-dominated, and many women believe they need to act like men—and yet be more likable than a man—in order to succeed. This includes not displaying signs of any “weakness,” or even “feminine emotions,” and not making other people uncomfortable. The act of crying can be perceived as all three. But what’s interesting is who’s doing the perceiving: in keeping with the notion that women are harsher on women—both at work and in their personal lives—Kreamer found that male managers reported being fine with female employees crying, while female managers were less so.

I have never once cried at work. Not on September 11, 2001, at my first job after college, when people were openly sobbing all around me. Not when I found out an uncle had committed suicide. Not when I felt like I might die from a thousand little cuts of undermining by an alpha editor. And I am an easy cryer. I cry at everything. I cry at the tackiest sentimental shit possible. I think I might have teared up during The Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in that scene where Shia is almost-dead.

But never at work. And I’m not a standoffish co-worker. Over the years my colleagues have seen me at some of my worst moments — that time when I was 24 and my boyfriend broke up with me, I went out with coworkers for happy hour to drown my sorrows and oops, ended up puking on my editor’s shoes. (He was cool with it. He’s been my reference for several jobs since.) Or when I was 26 and another boyfriend stalked me at the office, and my editor at the time walked me through how to file a police report. (Yes, I have dated some winners.) There have been great, intimate moments, too. I’ve met my bosses’ kids, gone to colleague’s bachelorette and birthday parties, swapped Xanaxes and talked misspent youths with coworkers in airport lounges while waiting for long-delayed flights. And I’ve never worried that any of this would strike my colleagues or bosses as unprofessional.

But crying? There’s no crying in baseball! Crying is too girly to do at work. I mean, get it together. 

In hindsight — what the hell? How did I develop a work ethic that made puking on my editor more acceptable than crying in front of him? Oh right. My internalized sexism. In our macho, ultra-competitive, tough-as-nails working culture, dealing with my problems, personal or work-related, by binge drinking and puking was far more professional than crying at my desk. Or, for my immature self, it seemed more professional. I had absorbed the machismo without questioning it. Meanwhile, I doubt that the boss who was so gracious about me puking on his shoes, and who today remains a friend, would have thought I was a lesser person had I shown some vulnerability through tears. Or through some other, more “girly” behavior. No decent person would. But as Kreamer points out, still today, female managers are more disapproving of female employees crying at work than male managers are. I was more disapproving of my “weakness” than anyone around me.

I work for myself now, and still have yet to cry while on the clock. But if the need arose, I wouldn’t shy away from it, male-dominated corporate culture or no. Sometimes tears happen, and that doesn’t make us fallible, or weak — it makes us human.

Join the Conversation

  • Cade DeBois

    I’ve cried at work, but always because of hostile or otherwise unbareable workplace conditions. In those cases, I went into the bathroom to cry, because it was so not a safe environment for me to let my emotions show.

  • Stella

    It was pretty much impossible not to cry at my former job, since we were routinely forced to work 24 hour days under enormous pressure, get yelled at by clients and generally never see the light of day.

    Everyone cried and had other breakdowns (breaking stuff, yelling at people, dipping into the scotch bottle you kept in your desk). But the expectation was you would do it in a private setting. Its less that crying in front of others was viewed as unprofessional, and more that it was a sign of weakness that would be used against you by someone willing to take more crap with a smile, regardless of gender.

    What I am saying is that I think increasingly,workplaces like my old one are less anti-woman and more anti-human.

  • meg gandy

    cried once. the first time, in a restaurant where i worked as a cashier. it was an especially busy night, and the line was forming well out the building. the owner, a stern older asian woman, took up the register next to mine and started helping me get people seated. the people started grumbling–i don’t know WHY they chose to wait here instead of going elsewhere, if they hated the wait so much. they could see the length of the line. but after multiple complaints, one man came up and just started verbally tearing into my boss. and she not only handled him, she lectured him and got him back in line ready to hand her his money. i was impressed–but i was also incredibly frustrated, because it wasn’t my place to speak up and assist her. and i broke down crying because of how awful these people were being.

    i had to excuse myself for a good ten minutes. i returned to guilty silence. the lines were quiet. a few of the complainers actually apologized when they finally reached the front.

    my boss never criticized me for this, and to this day she’s still my favorite.