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Crying at work is uncomfortable, and that’s OK

Tony Wagner and Reema Khrais Jun 25, 2019
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It's ok, let it out.
AMC/screengrab via Netflix

About half of American workers have cried at work. Maybe you’re one of them. If not, there’s a strong chance you work with someone who has shed tears on the job. And that’s OK!

We unpacked some of the tension about crying at work — especially when it’s work that’s making you cry — on the latest episode of “This Is Uncomfortable.” 

Host Reema Khrais spoke with Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC Davis and an expert in “individual and organizational images, identities and reputations” … which includes crying at work.

Here’s what we learned about what co-workers think when they see you cry, how to save face and why a good work cry is so stigmatized in the first place.

Everyone remembers the time you cried

That’s the bad news.

“People don’t know how to react and that makes them incredibly uncomfortable, so they remember it really well,” Elsbach said.

In researching the subject, Elsbach and her colleagues interviewed 60 people who had witnessed crying at work.

“Those people were able to describe in great detail events where they observed others crying at work,” she said.

If you were curious whether your boss remembers that time you cried, the bad news is they probably do.

Crying provokes a strong reaction — and not always a good one

People’s initial reaction to crying is almost always to try to help, Elsbach said. The discomfort comes from not knowing, in a work context, quite how to do that.

In extensive interviews with professionals who witnessed others crying at work, Elsbach found that that discomfort can sometimes give way to annoyance or anger.

“It’s a very short trip from, ‘Oh, I feel really uncomfortable,’ to: ‘Why are you making me feel uncomfortable?'” Elsbach said. Some co-workers told researchers they perceived some women criers as unprofessional or even manipulative.

“I couldn’t believe how often we found people saying ‘Oh she’s crying on purpose to get out of something,'” Elsbach said.

Reactions depend on gender

For men, it’s a different story.

The sample of crying men Elsbach looked at was much smaller, but she said co-workers tended to give those men the benefit of the doubt when they cried — or even gave them credit for bucking a stereotype and expressing their emotions.

“None of the women criers were perceived positively,” Elsbach said. “The best you could hope for was neutral.”

AMC/gif via Netflix

Better ways to deal with it

People view crying more negatively when it disrupts work, Elsbach found. If you’re worried about saving face, it can help to go somewhere private to cry.

You can also make it clear to co-workers ahead of time that crying is just how you express stress or frustration. Ideally, a supervisor will know that already.

“The best thing we can do is educate ourselves and others about what crying is,” Elsbach said.

“It’s just an expression of emotion that everyone feels. It’s not that women are feeling something different to men. They’re just expressing it differently.” 

Changing what we think of as “professionalism

This double standard, entrenched in American offices since the ‘60s, has been tough to shake.

“People were sort of looking at these Madison Avenue types as the prototype of the professional worker,” Elsbach said. “These were all men, very unemotional people, and so that became the stereotype.” 

Millennials became the largest share of the workforce in 2017. While norms around dress and inclusion in the workplace are changing, Elsbach said that changing ideas about crying will be slow.

“As I’m teaching the next generation of managers right now in my MBA classes, [I’m] trying to get the point across to them that this is OK,” she said. “That’s all we can do; one person at a time, one day at a time.”

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