I have, to my knowledge, made at least two people so upset that I’ve reduced them to tears in the workplace. The first of these occasions was when I was working for a property maintenance organization, and my boss ordered me to tell this guy with whom I shared a small, enclosed office that he smelled — so bad, in fact, that other staff members were refusing to come near where he and I sat, and so, no one was getting their invoices processed. This ranks as one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had to have, but despite the emotional meltdown, it really cleared the air — in all sorts of ways.
The other incident in which I sanctimoniously turned a co-worker into a puddle I feel much worse about. It took place well over a decade ago, and I’d totally forgotten about it until the person concerned recently got in touch, out of the blue, to remind me about it. Here is the message my former colleague, Gemma, sent me:
“The only colleague to ever pull me aside and make me feel like having a bit of a cry for being told off for being rude (and rightly so) . Hope you’ve had a good decade.”
Seeing this gave me a bit of a wobble myself. I remembered Gemma as a funny, friendly, all-round likeable colleague. Why would this regrettable — but from my perspective, trivial — event be the one, primary thing that has stuck with her about me, even so many years after we lost touch? “I just felt so embarrassed, ashamed and unprofessional. And like a twat,” she tells me when I get her on the phone to find out.
It happened when we worked together at a glossy magazine that, like most glossy magazines, no longer exists. As Gemma remembers it, she’d seen her dream job as a staff writer steadily evaporate under various bosses until her daily lot was doing basic admin for the head honcho publisher. Meanwhile, the rest of the team (largely male, it’s highly worth pointing out) escaped this fate and were all, she says, “living my best life: Playing darts, messing around with blow-up dolls, laughing and joking. Work got so loud one day with raucous, joyous, euphoric fun, at 10:30 a.m., and still at 11 a.m., and at 11:30 a.m. — throughout which time I was taking all these tedious phone calls, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying — that I just flipped. I got up, and I yelled, ‘Will you just SHUT THE F*** UP?!?!’” This was howled into the middle of an open-plan office of 30 to 40 people. “Which is kind of a sackable offense, if you think about it,” she notes.
Now, while she’s dead right about the fact that this particular workplace was essentially a poorly dressed and much less attractive version of Mad Men (and about the dartboard, and heaven help us, the blow-up doll), at the time, I was dumb-male-co-worker oblivious to Gemma’s sense of office abandonment and just how crappy her working life had become. Talking it through with her on the phone now, as if we’re acting out some weird form of delayed-shock therapy, her profane outburst and teary disintegration afterward make so much more sense. “You took me aside so it wasn’t in front of everyone — that’s when I knew I was in real trouble,” she remembers, “and you said: ‘We’re all in work, and we’ve all got things to do, but how dare you?’ It was a serious telling off that took me right back to my childhood.”
She cried, I looked at my feet as if they’d just stomped a seal pup through the floor, we went back to work and that was that. Except now, a lifetime later, the moment still feels weirdly fresh — although this time I’m the one with a lump in my throat.
Gemma tells me that the reason she still remembers all of this “in such vivid detail,” is because it was the first time she’d ever received any kind of semi-formal discipline from a manager-type person, and because it remains the one time in her career that an episode at work has ever brought her to tears.
The Stats of My Tears
Upsettingly, according to a recent survey of 3,000 workers conducted by the recruitment company Monster, losing tear-duct control is an experience shared by many more people, more regularly, than we might realize. Around 80 percent of those they asked said they’d cried in the workplace at least once, but what’s really revealing is the breakdown of these breakdowns: Only 19 percent of cheek-soaking episodes were triggered by personal factors outside of work, while 45 percent said the tears were a response to torpedoes from bosses or co-workers (e.g. “How dare you, Gemma?”); 15 percent said heavy workloads played a part; and around 13 percent cited workplace bullying as either a partial or direct cause.
Findings from a recruitment company on a PR mission admittedly aren’t all that scientific, and other analyses of workplace weeping that have been carried out over the years indicate a more sober sobbing situation. Another staffing company last year, for instance, found that out of 1,000 workers questioned, 45 percent had cried in the office, while in 2011 the business writer Anne Kreamer led an “Emotional Incidents in the Workplace Survey” in the U.S., which suggested that the figure was closer to around a third of employees overall, and that “workplace weeping is far more likely to be triggered by anger and frustration than by sadness.”
At any rate, it’s a surprisingly frequent occurrence, and one that, in bathroom cubicles, service corridors and stairwells everywhere, would seem to be on the rise. Lynn Taylor, an L.A.-based workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, sees it as yet one more unintended consequence of our digital working environment. “The increasingly frenetic state of connectivity to more people, nearly 24/7,” she says, “has put more pressure on relationships in the office and made it more difficult to use one’s best emotional intelligence skills. Increased collaboration across functional teams, remote workers and multiple bosses, for example, make the likelihood of conflict greater. It’s no longer just in one office, within a nine-to-five workday.”
As you might expect, there’s a heavily gendered dimension to all of this. In the course of her research, Kreamer found that the women she surveyed were far more tear-prone than their male counterparts — while 41 percent of women said they’d cried at work, only 9 percent of her male respondents had. Research into crying of all sorts across a large number of different cultures and age groups by Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University, meanwhile, has suggested that in general, women cry 30 to 64 times a year on average, whereas men cry between 6 and 17 times per year; women also tend to weep in longer bouts than men (two-thirds of whom keep it to less than five minutes).
While a number of explanations are floated for this cry-vergence — including imbalances between women and men in levels of tear-promoting hormones, and in the size and shape of their respective tear ducts, not to mention social factors, above all the power of acculturated feminine and masculine gender roles — it all adds up to workplace sobbing being around five times more of an occupational hazard for women than it is for men.
Perhaps because of the big difference in frequency, there also seems to be a stark disconnect in how female criers are perceived versus their male counterparts. According to Kreamer, it’s a riskier business if you’re a woman. “Women are harder on others who cry, especially other women: 43 percent of the women in our study, vs. 32 percent of the men, considered people who cry at work ‘unstable,’” she writes — a statistic supported by a 2018 survey of accountancy staff, which suggests nearly a third of employees actually agreed with the following statement: “Crying is never OK at work: People will perceive you as weak or immature.”
Does crying really do more damage to a woman’s reputation than to a man’s, though? A man in tears might be a rarer sight, but don’t the tough-guy, boys-don’t-cry protocols of masculinity mean it will trigger even more contempt in that heartless one-in-three of your colleagues who are going to be unsympathetic? “Now, perceptions have shifted for men,” counters Taylor. While for women, emotional restraint has traditionally been applauded in a professional environment, for men in 2019, she says, the opposite has somehow become the case. “Call it the impact of the #MeToo movement or a backlash against the overly aggressive male persona in favor of a more sensitive male leader. Either way, having a softer side is deemed a favorable male trait in the office today.”
Why Guys Disguise Their Cries
“I do have a certain machismo and I do pride myself on being quite a strong individual,” says Séamus, a community worker who lives in the U.K., “but at that point it dropped completely.” His one and only workplace emotional breakdown happened several years ago, and it was brought on by the bare fact of being in a workplace at all.
As he tells it, Séamus had just spent a happy and fulfilling summer living off savings while he recorded songs and rehearsed with his band — he’d had a taste of life as a professional musician, and decided he wanted to pursue it in earnest. But now a lack of money had brought him back to earth with a bump, and he’d taken a local government job driving buses door-to-door for people who couldn’t otherwise access transportation.
On his first morning, he turned up at the offices of the bus depot and was assigned his pick-up route and conductor. “I’d gone through the entire summer of doing the thing that I wanted to do most and being in charge of my own destiny,” he recalls, “and the fact that I then was suddenly at half past six in the morning, in the pitch darkness, in the freezing cold, having to drive a bus around — I discovered I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was.”
Sitting in the staff room, awaiting his first departure time, he felt his throat tightening with a surge of emotion and did what most of us would probably do. “I legged it to the [bathroom]. I went in a stall, and I just cried for about 10 minutes. Such was the chasm between the hope I had for the things that I wanted to do and my reality.” His bathroom exile went on much longer than he wanted it to, though. “Every time I thought I had it under control it would start up again,” he says.
Once he’d eventually rejoined the other drivers, hoping he hadn’t missed his slot and that he could pass off the red eyes as hayfever (“in November!”), he didn’t tell any of them about it. “I wouldn’t have wanted to turn up for a job on the first day and then for people to say, ‘Why is that bloke in the corner crying when he’s just started working?’ And, in all seriousness, ‘Is he fit to drive a bus?’”
This is all very understandable. But — shedding light on just how difficult it can be for men in particular to discuss these sorts of episodes, even in private — he didn’t mention the event to any of his friends or family either. “It wasn’t really typical of me and of how I conduct myself. I don’t generally need external help,” says Séamus, explaining that talking to a friend about it later would have only made it worse, by importing a (literally) partitioned-off moment into other parts of his life. “If your mate said, ‘I’ve just started a job today and went into the toilet and cried,’ you’d think: ‘Right, I have to go into friend mode here and help him and sort him out,’ right?”
Basically, he argues, a conversation like that would have felt like throwing oil on a fire to put it out. “It makes an issue like this much bigger than it is,” Séamus tells me. He then adds, to my surprise: “You’re the first person I’ve ever told about this.”
How to Cry at Work
“It takes courage to cry at work, and more so to speak about it. It can be a sign of emotional strength,” says David R. Caruso, a management psychologist with E.I. Skills Group who specializes in emotional intelligence. However, he’s sure to warn, “If it’s a frequent occurrence, that’s a very different story.” Caruso thinks that for many professionals, whether it’s women or men who are giving vent to their emotions, crying still carries a great deal of stigma. He explains this in terms of the emotional distance that’s conventionally seen as part of professional conduct. “Consider the question, ‘How are you?’ that we ask or are asked dozens of times a day,” he says. “The answers are often ‘good’, ‘great’ or ‘terrific’ — all merely polite responses.” Crying collapses this distance and punctures many people’s sense of decorum partly because “it’s a physical reminder that all is not always right and we may feel inadequate to help. It can be seen as weakness, indicating a lack of control.”
While all of these considerations factor into why most of us dread the thought of welling up in public, for the cryee, feelings of embarrassment and anxiety over reputational fallout are sometimes balanced out by the basic mental health benefits of letting go. “Crying can be an effective emotion-management technique,” says Caruso, because, largely, “it ‘works.’ You express it, process it and move on. While the data are mixed, most people feel a lot better after they cry. It’s a release, it’s an expression of grief, and if we [as co-workers] handle it well, the person crying receives understanding and support.”
Taylor suggests that in certain situations an emotional upwelling might actually be a boost for your professional standing, whether you’re male or female. “While it’s not a good practice to resort to crying openly when stress arises, there are situations where occasionally tearing up could be an asset. It might demonstrate, for instance, that an employee is passionate about an idea or project. It could illustrate that a supervisor’s actions are hurtful. At the other end of the spectrum is the apathetic employee — high on the frustration list for many managers.”
To ensure your emotional displays play well for you, she advises, “Much of it is situational and about frequency. If it’s a regular occurrence, employees should: a) Know their triggers in advance; b) identify the root cause, for example, a challenging boss, or an untenable level of work; c) have a private place to go to in advance; and d) try to keep it private as much as possible, keeping in mind that showing some emotion can be a positive in light doses.”
How to Cope With a Crier at Work
From the other side of the tissue box, when it comes to dealing with a colleague in visible distress, Caruso — who is co-author of A Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence, as well as a number of scientific studies in the field — offers some pointers that draw from the subject of his book (i.e., emotional intelligence). This is more than just showing empathy, too. As he defines it, emotional intelligence consists of “a set of hard, not soft, skills,” which “include the ability to read emotions accurately” and “the ability to manage emotions — your own and others’” — crucial skills when attempting to connect with someone who’s in a radically different emotional place than you are.
When you encounter a crying coworker, he says, “You’re likely to feel awkward — that’s to be expected. Take a breath, pause and just say, ‘Would you like to talk?’ And then listen. And validate.” Even if their reasons for crying aren’t the sorts of things that would reduce you to tears, make sure you signal to them that you get it.
To make certain you don’t come across as patronizing or lacking in empathy, he recommends a technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy — a form of psychotherapy designed to help those prone to experiencing extreme emotions. “Saying, ‘I can see how someone might feel that way’ is wonderfully affirming,” he advises. “If appropriate, as the person stops crying, show a connection, perhaps sharing something personal that happened to you.”
“I’ve been in many situations where someone starts crying at work,” says Caruso. “I generally try to follow my own advice: To listen, not to say much, to comfort and console. I don’t talk over the person; I find a tissue, and offer supportive words, even a simple, ‘So sorry to hear that.’ And I check in later, mostly to reassure that the incident stays between us.”
Travail of Tears
Shedding tears at work is always a highly personal moment, and whatever the statistics say, it’s always going to be triggered by a highly specific set of circumstances. As such, it’s invariably something that managers and HR departments struggle to deal with — you can’t devise policy for how the death of a family pet might interact with the pressure to deliver on Q3 forecasts, for example. But workplace culture can — and in most instances, probably should — be adapted to accommodate the natural ebbs and flows of employees’ emotional lives.
“In order to equalize perceptions about having a human side, both women and men at senior levels must educate their teams that it’s okay to be passionate about work, and to show some emotion and transparency,” says Taylor. “No one should feel their job has been jeopardized, or that something has officially gone on record, because they had an emotional outburst. If so, companies and their HR departments will be fostering a sterile, dispassionate workplace in an increasingly automated and arguably less humanized environment.”
Loosening workplace culture in this way might be a vital thing to do for companies that want to maintain their productivity into the digital future — because, according to Caruso, we can only expect to cry more work-distilled tears and increasingly encounter them in others as our careers march on: “If you read about demographic and generational trends, employees will be even more feelings-focused over the next few years. Encouraged to talk about their own feelings, employees no longer differentiate work from personal spaces.”
Tolerating tears also seems pretty crucial for everyone’s mental well-being, both in and out of work, because, as I’ve discovered, those moments when pressure peaks and the dam bursts really, really stay with you. “I have thought about it plenty of times since,” says Séamus, who says the memory of his bathroom bawling remains raw. “But that isn’t just me talking to you about it,” he insists. “That memory has been raw since 10 minutes after it happened. That hasn’t left me at all. When I focus on it, I don’t think to myself, ‘Oh well, you know, that happened and I’m over it now.’ That moment will always be, for me, as difficult as it was at the time.’”
As for my reprimand redemption on the phone with Gemma, she floors me with a revelation about just how much of a lasting impact those awkward 90 seconds we spent avoiding eye-contact sometime in the mid-to-late 2000s had on her. “You helped me evolve,” she says. “It’s not really a big deal or anything, but hand on heart, it was a life lesson.”
“So you forgive me?” I ask her.
“I forgave you straight away,” she says. “You’re on a list of three people that have ever actually stood up to me who I’ve listened to — actually, it’s only two! My auntie and you.”
Even when the thing that triggers a tearing-up is trivial, the act of crying at work is often a very big deal. And if there’s far more of it going on than we tend to realize, there’s also a much greater need to approach it with care. Because those tears don’t easily wipe away.