I am a crier. This is something I know about myself, and if you spend any real amount of time with me, you’ll know it too. I experience things intensely is really all it is, which — depending on who you ask — makes me either a joy to be around or a time bomb.
Of course, there have been instances where my tears were mistimed — like during a parent-teacher meeting, where I was the teacher, and the parents were not my own. My boss (the principal) was sitting to my right. I felt the tears pooling in my eyes before they arrived, and I did my best to harbor them there. “Don’t you dare do this,” I begged myself silently. “If you cry, you will look even younger than you already do.” I put up a good fight, but when my heavy tears began to fall, I felt my boss’s hand grab mine underneath the table. She squeezed it, then rested her palm on top of my knee. “I’m here with you,” she expressed through her gesture. “Do not be ashamed.”
While they may have been ill-timed, my tears weren’t out of the ordinary. “It’s not like people who cry easily are more emotional than people who don’t cry. It’s just that they express their emotions differently then a person who may raise their voice or go silent,” Kimberly Elsbach, Ph.D., a professor at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis, whose research has focused on the topic, tells Thrive. By this logic, crying in the workplace could be perceived as normal. Expected, even. And yet, it’s still widely viewed as taboo or inappropriate.
When the New York Times’s “Smarter Living” newsletter focused on the topic, “Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Crying at Work,” last month, its editor Tim Herrera tweeted about the response it got: “Lots of Strong Men reaching out to say it’s weak/inappropriate/a sign you’re unqualified for your job to cry at work. Same as when I wrote about burnout. Imagine being so insecure!”
Indeed, the public perception of shedding tears at work is shifting, with leaders like Priscilla Chan, pediatrician and wife of Mark Zuckerberg, paving the way. On her first day of residency at San Francisco General Hospital, she told Meg McNamara, her attending physician, that she was a crier, plain and simple. “It’s just one of her ways of expressing,” McNamara told Quartz of Chan. “[She cries] when she’s feeling exhausted or overwhelmed, and sometimes when she’s really ecstatic,” she said. Judging from the profile of Chan in Quartz, her tears don’t seem to be misconstrued by her colleagues as fragile femininity, or as a disqualifier for potential work. And to me, her openness is part of what makes Chan an intriguing leader, as well as a crusader of the current movement that calls for bringing your whole self to work.
Let’s say you’re a crier like me or Chan. Or maybe you don’t identify as a crier per se, but you suspect it may happen that you’ll cry in front of your boss (we spend one third of our time at work, so it likely will). Don’t be afraid. There are things you can do to alleviate the tension for everyone involved. These tips will help you move through your tears at work, instead of letting them stymie you.
Make clear that your crying wasn’t intentional.
This seems like a no-brainer, but, says Elsbach, it’s not. Her research shows that a significant number of people believed criers were faking it to avoid criticism, evade blame, or to gain sympathy. To show that you’re not being duplicitous, she suggests saying something in the moment like, “I didn’t intend to cry right now,” or “I see that I’m getting emotional about this, but it doesn’t mean I’m not listening to you or taking on what you’re saying.” If you’re more comfortable addressing it later, that works, too — just make sure you point out the obvious and say you didn’t mean to cry.
Let people know what to do if it happens again.
If you find or suspect that your boss is one of those people who is uncomfortable with crying, you may want to let them know what to do if it happens again — especially if you think it will. Most people want to help when someone is crying — or at least they know they should help, Elsbach says. But they don’t know how. “That feeling is very uncomfortable for observers and can lead them to make negative attributions of the crier,” she notes. “But if they know what to do, then they’re less likely to respond negatively.” She suggests saying, “I want you to know that when I feel disappointed in myself, I may cry. In that moment, it’s best to take a quick break and reconvene the conversation after.”
If you feel like your crying will be frequent because of something that’s happening at home, tell your boss what’s going on so she can anticipate your emotions and better support you. "No one likes to be surprised,” Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, tells Thrive. If you’re not transparent about what’s going on in your life, you and your boss may begin to resent one another. “If the thing you’re going through is going to be chronic or ongoing, you can say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got facing me,’” Kreamer suggests. “Then you can coordinate with your boss to map things out, so that you can keep up with your work without unduly putting stress on other people’s shoulders.”
Not only do some people view their co-worker’s tears as a guise, Elsbach says that some people feel their colleagues tears are selfish — in a “how dare you make me feel so uncomfortable” type of way. To elude this perception, she suggests saying something like, “I’m sorry if my crying made you feel uncomfortable,” and proceed to explain why you cried. If you go this route, know that you’re not apologizing for crying (particularly if it’s because you felt slighted because of gender or race, which are valid issues to get upset about, says Elsbach), you’re apologizing for making the other person uncomfortable.
If someone did something to upset or offend you, speak to them directly.
Say someone speaks dismissively in a meeting about a project of yours that you worked hard on, and you start to tear up. Speak to the person privately about how their specific actions, words, or delivery made you feel. “It can’t be vague, like ‘You always step on my toes.’ It has to be something grounded in reality, something relatively recent, and something very specific,” Kreamer recommends. She suggests saying, “Here’s what I was feeling when you were doing x, y, and z,” rather than, “Do you have any idea how you made me feel in that meeting?” And if you cry, you know what to do.