Fears about tears at the office from @Work Advice

March 12, 2013
Claire Danes on "Homeland" (AP Photo/Showtime, Ronen Akerman)
Claire Danes on “Homeland.”
(AP Photo/Showtime, Ronen Akerman)

Crying over work is a fraught topic often played for laughs or greeted with derision or surprise in popular culture and the media. Think of Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own” exasperatedly saying, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Or the memes involving “Homeland” star Claire Danes’s “crying face.”  Or the varying reactions when political figures make with the public waterworks (think John Boehner, Hilary Clinton and President Obama); they’re labeled as weak, empathetic or calculating, depending on the viewer.

But if the results of @Work Advice’s nonscientific online poll are any indication, most workers can quell their fears over tears. @Workaholics generally responded with sympathy to the letter writer in the March 10 @Work Advice column who had cried at the office, sharing their own stories of workplace breakdowns.

Of the close to 600 people who answered the question about whether they had cried at work, 80% of women and 33% of men polled said yes. Of the smaller sampling that answered the question about whether they think poorly of co-workers who have cried at the office, 71% of women and 53% of men said no, they don’t judge a co-worker harshly for the occasional stress-induced sobfest. (Numbers may have changed since this blog post was written.)

“I don’t think anyone would look at you differently afterward unless you did it all the time,” said Post reader someoneelse1 in the comments section.

In fact, commenter LizaBean, who was placed in charge of a small, dysfunctional office where men and women cried during the “crazy intense” transition, sees tears in that kind of situation as “indicative of someone who is … working hard to remain engaged and productive in the conversation.”

On the other side, some readers refuse to cry at work—and take a dim view of those who do cry. Not everyone agreed with what I wrote in the original column — that stress crying is comparable to involuntary reactions like sweating or blushing.

“All through school and through my career I have steeled myself to not cry at work,” said commenter missingwisc. “Get mad or start bombarding [management] with questions, but no tears in front of management or colleagues.”

Karmabottle, commenting on the poll, said she finds others’ crying “disconcerting” and tends to see it as “manipulative (either to sway others or to get out of a tough or [sticky] situation).“

Workers in typically high-stress careers—healthcare, law, finance, teaching—said weepers in those professions tend to get weeded out. From the stories, it sounds like crying in certain workplaces is like wading through the Amazon with a bleeding ankle: 10  minutes later, you’re a skeleton in khakis.

“I was often on the verge of tears,” said former Wall Streeter Suskat. “I stopped it by thinking of how ashamed I would feel if someone saw me crying.” The one time she cried at work, after six years with the firm, her boss suggested she find a different job. She left within three months.

Karmabottle said she doesn’t cry at her teaching job. “[S]tudents don’t need to see that because it looks like weakness to their young, inexperienced eyes.”

“PD,” a former legal secretary, said she had countless stories about crying at work. The most memorable was about an underling for the “Office Asp” who had a fist-pounding, screaming meltdown one evening in the copy room. PD and the other admins calmly rallied around her and helped with her work. The Asp’s victim eventually left; “she was really too fragile for legal,” said PD.

So what if you find yourself in a meeting with a tight throat and stinging eyes?

Humahumahumus advises workers to “assemble a toolbox of short, useful phrases” to pull out in case of ambush. Another good tip: “[T]aking a sip or two of water helps to buy you time and cool off.” In an extreme situation, “remain cool, stand up and announce, ‘This meeting is no longer productive. I’m leaving now.’… I’ve walked out of meetings and had the perpetrators come to me to apologize and ask for [a] do-over.”

To head off tears, mjd41 adapts a therapeutic technique called “present time” by “noticing ordinary things, like the color of the walls, or thinking about what I will make for dinner. The idea is … to ground yourself by being in the present.”

I’d further suggest keeping frequent tabs on your state of mind. Spinning from encounter to encounter  gets you wound up in the moment and off balance until you hit the tipping point. Find a few minutes—at the coffee maker, in the bathroom, in your car—to take stock of the little irritations and injuries that are quietly bleeding away your resilience. Make note of how you will solve the problems you can; mentally schedule appointments to freak out about the other things later.

And if you do lose control, take comfort in your humanity. “It’s not something you should do every day,” according to @Work Facebook follower and abusive-workplace survivor MK Whitlock, “but we do not become robots as soon as we swipe our badges to get into the door.”

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook and read more columns here.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at wpmagazine@washpost.com.
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Chris Richards · March 12, 2013