My boss had a little outburst over something that happened. I sat there in my desk trying to figure out what to say that would make my boss stop yelling and walk out of my office. Everything I said made the outburst worst. I finally said, “I made a mistake, OK! I will fix it right away!” As I said this, tears began to well up in my eyes. A couple blinks later and there were streams pouring down my cheeks. I could feel myself sweating. After my boss walked away, I desperately tried to wipe my sweaty forehead and dry my eyes with my sweater sleeve, without success (yeah, ew!). My tears came more quickly. I picked up my bags, and walked ran-walked out of the office.
As I walked to the ferry, my boss called. I ignored him. He called again. I decided to answer. He apologized profusely, admitted to over-reacting, and begged for forgiveness. I forgave him quickly and also apologized. But in my head, what was I apologizing for? Maybe for my “mistake” I guess but also for crying. As I hung up, I was angry with myself. I shouldn’t apologize for my emotional reaction. My boss’s emotion reaction was far worse and my response was a legitimate expression of my feelings of frustration for his outburst.
I used to think that crying at work was the most horrible thing a woman could do. I used to think that crying at work was a sign of weekness, of inferiority, of a woman not being able to “handle” the pressure of litigation. I have never seen nor heard of a man crying at the office for a work-related reason. But I had seen women do it. Mostly women who always brought their domestic problems to the office and who had a reputation for over-reacting easily.
In the past three years (since graduating from law school), I can recall crying specifically five times. Each time stands out in my mind. The first two times, I closed my office door and silently cried in my office because I was working late and missing my baby. My tears, thankfully, went unnoticed. The last two times were both at my current office as a reaction to an outburst from my boss from something I did or did not do.
Part of me feels embarrassed and ashamed about the times I've cried at the office. Our former receptionist used to cry at work all the time. She was always reacting emotionally to everything. I did not respect her for this. I thought she over-reacted to the smallest things and was way too sensitive. And again, I thought, if a man were in her place, would he cry? This is why people hate to hire women! They have to deal with crazy emotional over-reactions.
But lately, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided that crying can be a legitimate emotional reaction to some incidents at the work place. In some circumstances, it is a natural response to cry (especially when you are being berated unreasonably, when you are being personally attacked or criticized, when prompted by someone else’s emotional over-reaction). While I think other reactions may be more effective than crying, it is impossible for some people not to cry in certain circumstances. It’s human. We are human. And all humans process emotions differently.
Why should we be forced to stifled our natural emotions? Even though I’ve never seen a man cry at the office, I’ve seen men (and other women) engage in other emotional reactions. I’ve seen them get mad, yell, and scream. These are no more appropriate or less distracting than crying. They may be more harmful and disruptive in fact.
And still, there is a line. There is a point where expressing emotion in the office (no matter what kind that may be) is not professional. But....I guess I'm learning that crying can have a place as long as people are respectful.
Tips I've learned:
1. Remove yourself from the tear-inducing environment as soon as possible, if in a meeting and it is appropriate, excuse yourself respectfully.
2. Find a quiet place where you won't distract others where you can reflect and finish crying if necessary (sometimes it just feels good to get it all out and let it run its course!)
3. DO NOT make any decision, draft any pleading, or write any letter while under the influence of strong emotion... or you may make quick enemies!
4. As soon as the tears are under control, suck it up, get to business and tackle what needs to be done or fixed.
5. Don't apologize for crying! If you caused a disruption or made a mistake, you might consider apologizing for that but not for crying!
6. If you are in a position where you are crying at work a lot, it might be time to reflect whether there is a larger cause. Do you keep making mistakes? Is someone else being unreasonable/a tyrant? Are you unhappy with your job situation? Are you emotionally trigger happy? Is there an underlying cause for your tears (a problem at home) that is really the cause? Maybe you need to tackle some bigger/underlying issues going on in your life or reassess your work situation?