Many women in the workplace go to great lengths to avoid crying in front of coworkers. From slinking off to the bathroom to internally telling themselves to “buck up,” there’s a sense that crying in a professional setting is just about the worst thing you can do.
Why is crying at work so taboo? For one, it violates what anthropologists call “display rules,” or our cultural norms for self-expression and socialization. It’s why we have no problem understanding why a friend going through a breakup starts crying over dinner, but we’re caught off guard when a coworker bursts into tears during a meeting or performance review.
A lot of the women I’ve worked with have cried at work, only to feel remorseful about it later. Whether they were having a bad day or we’re feeling stressed or frustrated, something finally sent them over the edge. Biologically speaking, crying is meant to be cathartic. But in the workplace, there’s evidence that women actually feel worse after crying. (Men feel better).
My client, Elizabeth, recently told me a story about how she crumbled during a tense discussion with her boss. She had worked hard and long on her latest project and was expecting a glowing response. When they met, Elizabeth was already having a horrible day, and when her boss gave a more critical reaction than expected, Elizabeth felt herself tearing up. She didn’t have time to “escape” somewhere to cry privately, and she ended up crying in the meeting. She feared that her emotions would undermine her professional authority and that she would be perceived as incapable of handing her high-pressure job.
Fortunately, more and more people (including employers) are realizing that crying is part of being human, and crying at work isn’t an indictment of your professional abilities.
Here are three myths that are slowly eroding, while the truths about crying at work emerge.
Myth: Women cry because they’re more sensitive, and therefore less “tough” than their male counterparts.
Fact: Women are biologically hardwired to cry more frequently than men. They have 60 percent more prolactin, which is a hormone related to crying, than men, so it’s no surprise that women sometimes feel tears come to their eyes during inopportune moments. In fact, research shows that 41 percent of women have cried at work at some point during their careers.
This statistic is a reminder of something we often forget: that crying is an evolutionary process, and we don’t have a whole lot of control over when it happens (if any — have you ever tried to stop yourself from crying once the floodgates have opened?). Crying has nothing to do with mental toughness, and everything to do with biology.
Myth: Crying makes you look weak and hurts your professional reputation.
Fact: Research shows that crying doesn’t typically hurt your professional standing. It’s all in how you handle it and respond. Rather than doubling down on embarrassment or shame, you can display your maturity by acknowledging your emotions (once you’ve had time to collect yourself). You don’t need to over-explain yourself, and you certainly don’t need to apologize. But you can be diplomatic, thanking colleagues for their concern and their offers to help. It’s also okay to say that you just need some space for an hour or two.
One of the reasons that crying in the workplace is so uncomfortable is that people don’t know how to respond. By addressing the experience, conveying whether you need support or space, and then moving on, you demonstrate a sense of professionalism that’s much more remarkable than a bout of crying.
Myth: Crying at work derails productivity and is bad for workplace dynamics.
Fact: Actually, relatively speaking, crying is one of the least disruptive things you can do in the workplace. Unlike toxic or aggressive behavior (lashing out, manipulating others, bullying), crying doesn’t ruin anyone else’s day. You might feel embarrassed, but your emotional reaction is most likely just a blip on everyone else’s radar.
The reality is, crying is natural no matter when or where it happens. You don’t lock the door on your emotions when you leave the house each morning. And because challenging, complex situations occur at work all the time, there’s bound to be tricky emotional territory.
Showing genuine feelings can draw colleagues closer, sometimes even initiating important discussions that benefit the whole team. If that’s not an upside, I don’t know what is.