We need to talk about crying at work
If you were looking for me at 3:34pm on March 15, 2016, you wouldn’t have found me at my desk. You’d have to wind your way through an open floor plan of tables, chairs, and streams of power cords and ethernet cables until you eventually arrived at a door labeled MEN.
Despite the outcome of my last meeting, I’d managed to keep a straight face on my way through the maze. My speech was even because I made sure it was. No tell-tale lip quivers. But I smiled too much — and far too wide — as we discussed next steps and wrapped things up. Nobody’s perfect.
After the meeting, I left and walked down the hall, still smiling. I was trying to avoid attention, not walking too fast or too slow. Just being casual, trying to show everyone just how normal I am, just how normal everything was around me, just another very normal day in the very normal land of Moving Fast and Breaking Things.
Except that I felt like I was breaking.
I arrived at the men’s bathroom, avoiding the mirror as I walked in. I didn’t want to see that fake shark smile. At one of the sinks, a dude was adding gel to his hair, making it stiff and upright. He didn’t look at me and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I wanted to be unnoticeable, nothing, less than nothing.
The door was open on the last stall at the end of the row. My hands shook as I entered and twisted the lock. It made a soft click and that was it — I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Tears streamed out of me.
And no one would have known, except for the hitching of my breath.
That fucking hitching.
I was in the men’s bathroom. Crying as quietly as I could. But the hitching betrayed me — no one who’s heard those gasps and retches could mistake them for anything else. Because it’s so ugly, so human.
So much more common than you’d ever think.
Why I cry
I was crying because I’d let my team down. The details don’t matter now, but the meeting I’d just been in made it clear to me that I’d made some mistakes. Big mistakes.
So I hid in a bathroom stall and cried. But that wasn’t the first time (or the last). I’ve cried in 1:1 meetings, after a hard argument with a stubborn colleague, after receiving negative feedback… after giving negative feedback, too.
I don’t have to be sad to cry — the older I get, the more weepy I become. Crying gives me catharsis: a release that washes away stress and sadness, anger and anxiety, or even overwhelming happiness.
But in feeling all of those feels, crying helps me refocus on the things and people that really matter to me. Crying makes me feel stronger by showing me what I care about.
The inequality of our tears
I get it: you think I’m pathetic. You’re not the first (or only one) to think so. That’s because we tend to judge people who cry, especially people who cry at work. And people who cry often judge themselves harshly — I know I do.
Even so, I’m somewhat protected from the negative impact of crying at work by my identity: my gender, race, age, and position of leadership make it a lot safer for me to cry in public. Most people will see, interpret, and respond to the tears of an older white man very differently than they would someone else’s. So my privilege means that I’m far less likely than others to face severe consequences than others.
But even with all that privilege, I still feel compelled to hide away in a bathroom stall. My urge to hide or run away from my honest feelings—and it is one of the strongest, deepest urges I feel—makes me wonder what it’s like for everyone else: people of color, LGTBQ+ folks, anyone with known or visible disabilities, and especially people who identify as women. I researched all of these areas, but here I’m going to focus on what I learned about the experiences of women in the workplace.
“In spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test,” writes Anne Kreamer, author of the book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The Workplace. She points out that “[Women] feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.” Inversely, Kreamer’s data showed that 41% of women have cried at work, but only 9% of men have.
So Kreamer found that even though crying made women feel worse, they tend to do it more. And while crying makes men feel better, they do it less. Why?
We need to ask this because when women (or anyone else) are told that they’re not allowed to cry, this is an act of oppression. That’s because crying is a natural function of biology. Science shows that hormonal differences and even tear duct size play a role in how people cry, as well as how that crying is perceived.
These differences in perception can be caused by unconscious bias. Men are often socialized to express their emotions through anger—so those men who are able to cry are perceived as being more authentic, brave, or even strong. Not so with women: “Observers are more likely to make dispositional attributions (i.e., attributions to a person’s innate characteristics) when women express emotions… Researchers have also found that the belief that ‘displaying emotion at work is dysfunctional’ is more likely to be applied to women than to men.”
We need to change this — and some people already are. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, has pointed out that it’s perfectly okay for everyone—both women and men—to cry at work. “I cry at work,” she’s said. “I think we are, all of us, emotional beings and it’s okay for us to share that emotion at work.”
Likewise, Manijeh Motaghy, founder of the Mindful Business Institute, has said: “[Crying at work] can give a person a few moments of relief. Those who are against it perhaps fear the employee is caught up in the story that caused her to cry, and distracted from tasks at hand, which is understandable.”
Motaghy continues: “I believe the best way is to train employees to become more aware of the underlying feelings behind crying rather than preventing it (because it is not appropriate) or allowing it (because it is more humane).”
Because it is more humane.
We don’t have to reserve the benefits of crying just for older white men like me. Rewarding dudes and punishing women is not only unfair, it’s an act of oppression. We should admit that unconscious bias shapes how we see people who cry and then work together to normalize crying no matter people’s gender, race, or status.
Most of all, we should stop judging people who cry — and start supporting them.
How to support someone who’s crying at work
I want to point out that I’m not a therapist or mental health professional. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably not one either. That’s all right, nobody’s perfect. Just do your best.
1. Acknowledge people and their feelings
If a person is sobbing in front of you, don’t try to ignore it or pretend like it’s not happening. Because it’s definitely happening.
No matter what’s led to this moment, respect the person by acknowledging their feelings and what they’re experiencing. Show them that you’re here and available for them — don’t back away with your hands up as if they’re carrying a contagious disease. It’s okay, you won’t get burned.
You may feel afraid, you may feel embarrassed, you may feel uncomfortable. Even so, the person who’s crying feels those feelings at several orders of magnitude greater than you.
All you need to do is be present, available, and don’t negate the person by telling them to stop or to grow up. Most of all, if a person cries in front of you, never make any assumptions or judgments about them or their situation.
2. Let them know they’re safe and not being judged
This is the most helpful thing you can do for anyone who’s crying. A person who shows you their tears — particularly at work — is a person at their most vulnerable.
They might fear that their crying will be a career-limiting move. They might worry that you’ll tell their colleagues or manager or someone in HR. Most of all, they might be afraid of you and what you’ll say or think during this moment when their guard is down. What if you always judge them based on this one encounter?
Let people know they’re not being judged. Tell them it’s going to be okay — they won’t believe you, but it will still help them feel safer. Let them know they’re safe and supported and that you’re here for them. Give them the freedom to express their feelings if they choose to, but also the freedom to leave, find someone else to talk with, or do whatever they need to do.
The best way to support a crying person is to shut up and listen. Just listen. You don’t need to solve their problem, tell them how they got it wrong, propose solutions, or do anything else.
I know it’s challenging to avoid deconstructing a person’s problems and trying to fix it for them, especially for people like me who work in tech. We’re so wired for problem solving, analysis, and feedback. You might feel like it’s your duty to jump in and get to work by solving this person’s problem for them.
Nevertheless, people are not products. Resist the urge to tell a crying person what to do, why they’re wrong, how they should act, or how to fix things. It’s not your place and it’s not what they need from you. You have no clue what they’re going through.
So just listen. Let the tears — and the person’s words — flow freely.
3. Use your situational awareness to know you’re not the hero
This may be hard to understand, but someone who’s crying doesn’t owe you anything. They don’t need to give you an explanation, a hug, or even a thank you.
They may not be ready to talk about what’s going on — and that’s okay. You don’t need to force them to talk or to be with other people if they want to be left alone.
Gently asking “How can I help?” or “What do you need?” acknowledges their feelings and gives them the power they need to choose their own path forward. That’s all you really need to do. Though they might appreciate if you hand them a box of tissues as well — I certainly do.
You’ll support people best when you can read the situation, take in the context, listen to them, and honor their needs, even if that means that you’re not the hero of their story. That’s okay, because it gives them more space to be their own hero.
We need to talk about our tears
I think the hardest part of crying at work is that we’re not supposed to talk about it. No matter how open and aware you are, you likely still have biases that society’s drilled into you — I know I do. Most of us are socialized to think that women are always emotional and that men never cry. So work cultures created by men are likely to be cultures where crying isn’t accepted.
Instead, we feel like we’re supposed to make it disappear, pretend that it doesn’t happen, stamp it the fuck down, make it go away. And as much as I believe that crying is totally okay, I still beat myself up when I do it.
Or I just hide it. The way I hide in bathroom stalls.
But no one should have to do that. In order to fight bias against people who cry, we need to change these work cultures, even if we weren’t the ones who shaped them. That means we need to be able to talk about crying, acknowledge it openly, and support people when it happens.
Because it’s going to happen. It’s probably happening to someone you know right now while you read this.
As more companies ask people to bring their whole, authentic selves to work, we should welcome their tears with their smiles, their sobs with their smirks, and their hitching with their laughing. We can’t open the door to emotions only halfway — especially if we make invisible, arbitrary, or sexist rules about which emotions are acceptable and which ones aren’t.
There are people who cry at work. I know because I’m one of them. You might be, too. So we need to work together to break the conspiracy of silence.
We need to talk about it.
I originally wrote this as an internal note to my colleagues at Facebook in 2017. Since leaving the company, I’ve adapted it for a public audience (please don’t sue me, Facebook).
This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the help and feedback from so many amazing humans: Ella Harris, Jasmine Probst, Natalie Shaw, and Beth Dean at Facebook along with Christina Wodtke, Jess Sand, Sara Wachter-Boettcher (listen to her Strong Feelings podcast — it’s excellent), Tori Street, Abby Bajuniemi, Vinish Garg, and Torrey Podmajersky. As always, please recognize them for anything I got right. Blame me for everything I got wrong.