Crying in the workplace

Michelle Singletary
Columnist July 2, 2011

We are often told in various workplace situations to watch our emotions.

But how’s that possible when so much of our time is spent at work?

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Well, we can’t simply check our emotions at the security desk, says Anne Kreamer, author of “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace.” Following my selection of Kreamer’s book for the Color of Money Book Club in April, she joined me online to answer reader questions and discuss emotions on the job. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: I cry easily in any situation. I had a boss who just did not like me and essentially told me so. She dealt with tough situations in her position and often took out her frustration on me with a short temper and snappish comments. I teared up several times but tried my best to stop it (no full-on crying, but wet eyes). I feel so angry with myself but physically can’t hold back tears at times. What is a person to do? I realize tears are perceived as pathetic and unprofessional.

Kreamer: You’ve identified an essential aspect of tears on the job. There are those who say, “Well, I’m a crier,” and there are those who say, “I’m not a crier.” The two groups have real difficulty appreciating each other. One views the other as weak. The other views the [noncrier] as unfeeling or rigid. And it’s neither. It’s just different. If we were all taught how to manage those differences, the workplace would be a better place for all. It’s sort of a Goldilocks kind of thing — you don’t want too much or too little emotion in a workplace. If you know your boss dislikes the expression of tears, then you should work to develop strategies to help you manage them.

Q: I think any strong emotion, whether it’s anger, crying, despair, etc., is inappropriate for work. Whether they’re intentional or not, these types of emotions often create a feeling of attempted manipulation and can influence of business decisions. While I understand that people sometimes cannot control their emotions, I think it is appropriate for someone who is having extreme emotions to excuse himself and find someplace private to collect himself and then return to the discussion.

Kreamer: You are correct that emotion can get in the way of smooth operations, but one of the issues I’m trying to address is that emotions are there all the time, informing every single decision. What’s also true is that none of us are ever taught how to handle the expression of strong emotion in a work environment. Usually just ignoring it won’t make it go away. It tends to fester and then erupt even more powerfully another time. The trick is to know what you are feeling, figure out how to address that before something explodes, and move on.

Q: I think part of the problem for me is that once I start crying, I can’t talk clearly, so I get more and more frustrated, and whoever is there doesn’t know why I’m upset. Nothing gets resolved.

Kreamer: A great thing to do in this kind of a situation is to say, “We’ve clearly touched on an important nerve; please give me a second to pull my thoughts together, and I’d like to try to express what’s behind the tears.” [The tears] can be about frustration, feeling overwhelmed, feeling undervalued. Whatever it is, try to think clearly (as best you can under the circumstances) about what is so upsetting to you, and then discuss those issues as clearly as possible. If you don’t feel you can do it right then, say, “Look, this is important to me, obviously. I’d like to talk about it. Can we make time tomorrow?” That usually works, too.

Q: I well up extremely easily, even if I’m not terribly upset. I’ve found that male managers usually see it as really distressing (they can’t bear to see a woman cry, and want to make it better). Female managers appear annoyed, like it’s a sign of weakness.

Kreamer: One of the interesting things I discovered in my research is that men actually judge women far less harshly for crying at work than do other women. Men just sort of think, “it’s something that happens,” while other women judge the crying woman as a moral failure. I think there is something to learn from this. Perhaps we should all cut one another a little slack.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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