The Truth About Tears

The person who taught me that it might be OK to cry at work was a co-worker I will call Peg.  I admired Peg tremendously.  She was always calm in chaos and seemed unflappable, no matter what happened.  Peg was the type of person who, when I complimented an outfit, laughed and said, “Thanks, this was Plan B.  My toddler projectile vomited all over the first choice.”  Peg was the person who, when you arrived at the office at 8:15 to discover there were people in the lobby for an 8:30 meeting that nobody had told you about, would effortlessly spirit them into the nicest conference room, bring them coffee, and even remember which person preferred a diet soda, all while you were cursing as you scrambled to put words on some PowerPoint slides so that you could seem like you were prepared.

One day, when I found unflappable Peg crying in the ladies’ room, I figured that something tragic must have happened, like a death in the family.  When I asked what was wrong, she said matter-of-factly, “Nothing really.  I cry when I’m angry.  The stupid photocopier kept jamming and it made me so mad, I had to come in here and cry a little bit.  I’m getting over it now.”

Her comment stuck with me: “I cry when I’m angry.”  I am also an angry crier, but I did not realize it until she said those words.  I remembered a time when a former boss ambushed me into having a sensitive conversation that I was not prepared to have. There was some friction on our team at the time, and I had some ideas on how to improve the frayed relationships.  It was a difficult topic for me, and I had not yet had time to rehearse the dialog until the emotion drained out of it.  Almost immediately after I started talking, I started to choke up and the tears came.  Still, I managed to get out the message, which was what I believed to be a thoughtful, constructive action that our team could take to work better together.

The boss came unglued.   He immediately got defensive, changed the subject, and needless to say the issue of our team dynamic was not solved.  At the time, I could only imagine that my crying in his office had somehow transformed me in the boss’ mind into a petulant child, or an emotional spouse, or an irrational crazy person. Maybe the message simply failed to resonate as valid feedback because it was delivered through tears.  I now realize that it was not the boss’ fault; neither of us had been equipped to understand my angry tears, let alone process this stereotypically female reaction in a professional way.

Like me before Peg’s epiphany, we recognize crying as a signal of grief, emotion, and even joy, but not anger.  We hide tears at work behind closed doors to avoid upsetting others, or maybe we learn to emote in a way that we think is more office-appropriate, to avoid appearing weak or upsetting those around us.  After all, men’s anger can tend to manifest itself in ways that are easily recognized:  Raised voices, bold gestures, cursing.  I once had an angry colleague who kicked a hole in the wall of his office.  Had Peg raised her voice at the uncooperative photocopier, any observer would have recognized her “anger-appropriate” reaction for what it was.  She would not have felt the need to hide in the ladies’ room to spare others the discomfort of watching her process her anger by crying.

We do not receive a lot of training or guidance on how to deal with tears at work.  What could we do differently?  The next time you encounter a colleague crying in the office, please try not to dismiss the person as emotional, sad, or hormonal.  What should you do?

Seeing someone cry can be uncomfortable and one way to help deal with your reaction is to focus on understanding the other person. It is perfectly acceptable to ask whether anything is wrong.  It is also perfectly acceptable, especially if the tears begin during a situation with the potential for an angry reaction, to ask whether you said or did something to make the person angry.  You might be surprised by the answer.  Either way, offering up a box of tissues is always appreciated.

  12 Comments   Comment

  1. Laura Browne

    Thank you for your great suggestions. This is a difficult topic and I agree with your comments about how it seems more acceptable to show anger in other ways instead of crying. I also appreciated your advice for helping a crying colleague.

  2. A very sensitive topic that needs attention. Nicely put Hebe and thank you for writing on such a topic and sharing your thoughts. I relate to the ‘angry crier’, I think I am one but like many I always fear showing my emotions with teams lest I be judged as the emotional girl or even the emotional wife who ends up with tears to win an argument !!

  3. I agree, crying in the workplace is a very sensitive topic; however reading Hebe’s perspective/experience allows me to rethink my own personal behavior and how I can help another. Thank you Hebe; I welcome learning more about you through your contributions on Yammer.

  4. Thanks for this post, Hebe! I recognize my daughter as an “angry crier” and have thus far been telling her to grow “more resilient”. Now, I’m beginning to see this is not necessarily a weakness. Great food for thought, Hebe!!

  5. Thanks Shwati – I am glad that the post resonated with you! It is a hard topic to discuss.

  6. Thanks Yvonne and kudos to you for recognizing this tendency early in your daughter’s life. Had I recognized it in myself earlier, I might have been able to explain to the boss that I was angry, and why, and the conversation might have gone very differently.

  7. Likewise, Judy. There is an interesting NYT article that came out on the same Wednesday that goes about 12 levels deeper into the topic of women’s anger. A link is posted on the Global WIN Yammer site If you are interested in reading it.

  8. Thanks Laura – you have no idea how close I came to changing the topic, but the reactions (from men and women) have been so great that now I am very glad I stuck to it, no matter how uncomfortable.

  9. Jamie Rovner

    Wow this was very interesting. I too am an angry crier. Actually I’m an all emotion crier but I have been in situations with superiors where I was angry and instead of talking I would just burst into tears and when it is a male boss they tend to dismiss you. It is really hard. Thank you for the insight.

  10. Valencia Gibson

    This is a great post with excellent insight into a reaction that frequently goes misunderstood.

  11. Thanks for reading, Jamie. I hope that someone will post here if the person on the other side of the table actually responds with the “did I say something to make you angry?” suggestion. Even if it doesn’t happen, at least we can help others to recognize our anger by spelling it out for them. It’s a lot less painful than punching the wall!

  12. Thanks Valencia, you provided a lot of great support during that tough time!

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