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We Need To Talk About Crying At Work

A bathroom stall, AKA “Jon’s Cry Closet.” Photo by Tom Rogerson.We need to talk about crying at workIf you were looking for me at 3:34pm on March 15, 2016, you wouldn’t have found me at my desk. You’d have to wind your way through an open floor plan of tables, chairs, and streams of power cords and ethernet cables until you eventually arrived at a door labeled MEN. Despite the outcome of my last meeting, I’d managed to keep a straight face on my way through the maze. My speech was even because I made sure it was. No tell-tale lip quivers. But I smiled too much — and far too wide — as we discussed next steps and wrapped things up. Nobody’s perfect.After the meeting, I left and walked down the hall, still smiling. I was trying to avoid attention, not walking too fast or too slow. Just being casual, trying to show everyone just how normal I am, just how normal everything was around me, just another very normal day in the very normal land of Moving Fast and Breaking Things.Except that I felt like I was breaking.I arrived at the men’s bathroom, avoiding the mirror as I walked in. I didn’t want to see that fake shark smile. At one of the sinks, a dude was adding gel to his hair, making it stiff and upright. He didn’t look at me and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I wanted to be unnoticeable, nothing, less than nothing.The door was open on the last stall at the end of the row. My hands shook as I entered and twisted the lock. It made a soft click and that was it — I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Tears streamed out of me.And no one would have known, except for the hitching of my breath. That fucking hitching. I was in the men’s bathroom. Crying as quietly as I could. But the hitching betrayed me — no one who’s heard those gasps and retches could mistake them for anything else. Because it’s so ugly, so human.So much more common than you’d ever think.Everybody hurts, everybody cries. Photo by Tom Pumford.Why I cryI was crying because I’d let my team down. The details don’t matter now, but the meeting I’d just been in made it clear to me that I’d made some mistakes. Big mistakes.So I hid in a bathroom stall and cried. But that wasn’t the first time (or the last). I’ve cried in 1:1 meetings, after a hard argument with a stubborn colleague, after receiving negative feedback… after giving negative feedback, too.I don’t have to be sad to cry — the older I get, the more weepy I become. Crying gives me catharsis: a release that washes away stress and sadness, anger and anxiety, or even overwhelming happiness.But in feeling all of those feels, crying helps me refocus on the things and people that really matter to me. Crying makes me feel stronger by showing me what I care about.Your identity can influence how people see your tears. Photo by Aliyah Jamous.The inequality of our tearsI get it: you think I’m pathetic. You’re not the first (or only one) to think so. That’s because we tend to judge people who cry , especially people who cry at work. And people who cry often judge themselves harshly — I know I do.Even so, I’m somewhat protected from the negative impact of crying at work by my identity: my gender, race, age, and position of leadership make it a lot safer for me to cry in public. Most people will see, interpret, and respond to the tears of an older white man very differently than they would someone else’s. So my privilege means that I’m far less likely than others to face severe consequences than others.But even with all that privilege, I still feel compelled to hide away in a bathroom stall. My urge to hide or run away from my honest feelings—and it is one of the strongest, deepest urges I feel—makes me wonder what it’s like for everyone else: people of color, LGTBQ+ folks, anyone with known or visible disabilities, and especially people who identify as women. I researched all of these areas, but here I’m going to focus on what I learned about the experiences of women in the workplace.“In spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test,” writes Anne Kreamer, author of the book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The Workplace . She points out that “[Women] feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.” Inversely, Kreamer’s data showed that 41% of women have cried at work, but only 9% of men have.So Kreamer found that even though crying made women feel worse, they tend to do it more. And while crying makes men feel better, they do it less. Why? We need to ask this because when women (or anyone else) are told that they’re not allowed to cry, this is an act of oppression. That’s because crying is a natural function of biology. Science shows that hormonal differences and even tear duct size play a role in how people cry, as well as how that crying is perceived.These differences in perception can be caused by unconscious bias. Men are often socialized to express their emotions through anger—so those men who are able to cry are perceived as being more authentic, brave, or even strong. Not so with women: “Observers are more likely to make dispositional attributions (i.e., attributions to a person’s innate characteristics) when women express emotions… Researchers have also found that the belief that ‘displaying emotion at work is dysfunctional’ is more likely to be applied to women than to men.” We need to change this  — and some people already are. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, has pointed out that it’s perfectly okay for everyone—both women and men—to cry at work. “I cry at work,” she’s said. “I think we are, all of us, emotional beings and it’s okay for us to share that emotion at work.”Likewise, Manijeh Motaghy, founder of the Mindful Business Institute, has said: “[Crying at work] can give a person a few moments of relief. Those who are against it perhaps fear the employee is caught up in the story that caused her to cry, and distracted from tasks at hand, which is understandable.”Motaghy continues: “I believe the best way is to train employees to become more aware of the underlying feelings behind crying rather than preventing it (because it is not appropriate) or allowing it (because it is more humane).” Because ...Read more

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