Lean In to Crying at Work

Looking down on people who cry at work is sexist. It’s time to bring back the noble art of public weeping.

Michael Haegele / Corbis

When the president of CBS News fired correspondent Mika Brzezinski a decade ago, she cried. And she regrets it. “There was no place for those tears in that moment,” she told the Huffington Post two years ago. “If anything, when you cry, you give away power.”

Of the 15 other high-profile women the news site interviewed about crying at work, the majority expressed negative views of some sort. Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, put it most bluntly: “Tears belong within the family.”

Video: Should You Cry at Work?

The widespread cultural disparagement of the work-cry is strange, though, since there’s nothing inherently bad about crying. In past centuries, even the public weeping of grown men was celebrated. Far from surrendering power, these moist-eyed gents were showing deep respect. As Sandra Newman wrote in Aeon, even members of Parliament cried so hard they could barely speak. “In 1628, the English politician Thomas Alured describes the reaction in the House of Commons to a letter from the king threatening the dissolution of Parliament: ‘Sir Robert Phillips spake, and mingled his words with weeping … St. Edward Coke was forced to sit down when he began to speak, through the abundance of tears.’”

In the office, crying is simply another unexpected emotional cue, like a guffaw or a jump for joy. But unlike those, it’s negative, so it snaps people to attention.

The ignominy of the office cry is still more of an issue for women than for men, because women cry more than men do. In her survey of 700 people, Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, found that in the past year, 41 percent of women admitted to crying at work, but only 9 percent of men did.

Part of the explanation is hormonal: Men generate more testosterone, which inhibits crying, while women produce more prolactin, which seems to promote it. Anatomy also plays a role. Men have larger tear ducts than women, so more of their tears can well in their eyes without spilling out onto their cheeks.

Women might also react differently to tear-jerking situations, on average. It’s not usually sadness, per se, that makes people cry. Instead, it’s “helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioral responses to a problem situation,” as Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University and a leading crying researcher, writes.

When women encounter these “problem situations” and react with overt anger, they are often punished for it. In studies, angry men are thought to deserve more status, a higher salary, and are considered better at their jobs than angry women. Women also tend to internalize their emotions—direct them inward—while men externalize them, or project them out, according to Aprajita Mohanty, an assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook university.

Because of that, women might be more likely to react to emotionally frustrating situations with a kind of helpless anger, Vingerhoets said. “They start crying,” he said. While “men tend to react with swearing and anger.”

The sum of all this research suggests that for a woman whose, say, project gets canceled, her reaction is more likely to be, “Okay, I’ll stress-cry a bit and move on with life,” than it is to be ranting and screaming. But the research says, careful with that. Even though women might feel more socially and biologically predisposed to cry, several studies suggest they are nonetheless perceived negatively for crying at work—and in fact, more negatively than men are.

For a study that’s currently under review, Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California, Davis, recruited 65 people from a “Women in Business” conference through a professional M.B.A. program and asked them about times they had cried at work or had seen someone else doing so. She found people thought it was more acceptable to cry about personal tragedies, like a death in the family, than more routine things, like breakups. Crying was more acceptable when it was done in someone’s office than in public, and when it was over quickly. In cases like those, crying could even foster bonds between colleagues.

Most people told Elsbach they didn’t want to cry, and they would do anything to make themselves stop. (A common tactic was pinching oneself to stanch the tears. It didn’t really work.)

Criers were evaluated negatively for tearing up during a meeting or a performance review. People looked with contempt on colleagues driven to sobs over work stress or disagreements. In the words of one man:

The most damaging time to cry, I would say, is when people can’t handle the pressure from a job or workplace or the stress. As far as from a management position, if you see people crying because they can’t handle the situation or stress of what they’re going through in the workplace, you’re going to think, ‘Well, why should we promote them? They can’t handle what they’re doing now.

Elsbach was surprised, given the involuntary nature of crying, that crying in the office was so often seen as manipulative.

“To a person,” Elsbach said, “the criers said they couldn’t control it. But many of the perceivers thought the crying was done intentionally: ‘She’s behind on her work and she’s trying to get somebody to help.’”

Overall, Elsbach gathered 110 stories, 100 of women crying and 10 of men, so there weren’t enough to show statistically significant gender disparities.

She did, however, take note of a few differences. Men, she says, were uniformly perceived more positively than women. The “baseline” view of women, she said, was "women are emotional and lack control." Crying only confirmed that stereotype.

Men, meanwhile, were already thought to be strong and unemotional. When they cry, people tend to think, “something horrible must have happened” or “somebody made them cry,” Elsbach said. Similarly, in her study, “the negative attributions were not pinned on them as much.” Men were also the only ones to reap benefits from crying—things like, "it made me feel closer to him" or "it humanized him."

Earlier studies showed that women’s tears were viewed more positively than men’s, but that seems to be changing. A 1991 study found that men who cried during an emotional movie were liked better than those who didn’t, while women who cried were liked less.

For their 2007 book chapter, “The Perception of Crying in Women and Men,” the psychologists Leah Warner and Stephanie Shields had 284 college students read short stories about breakups and a parent’s divorce. In each story, the researchers changed the gender of the main character, whether the person felt angry or sad, and whether the protagonist began to fully cry or simply teared up.

Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up). Male criers who were described as “sad” were also viewed most positively of the bunch, though there was little gender difference for the angry criers. The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.

The findings seem to bolster Shields’ earlier theory that there’s a certain kind of “manly emotion” that actually boosts a man’s status. The man who cries in a controlled, thoughtful way, and for a good reason—think Russell Crowe in Gladiator, she writes—is a real man with a soft side. Women get no such benefit. When I told my colleague Julie about these studies, she let out a sigh and said she wasn’t surprised. "Everything men do is good,” she said.

Thus, crying joins the list of things—makeup, raising kids full-time—that people look down on simply because women do them more. That might sound far-fetched, but we see variations of this phenomenon across scientific disciplines. One explanation for the gender-wage gap, for example, is that female-dominated professions pay less because there are more women in them. Certain vocal tics that are associated with young women, like upspeak and vocal fry, are appraised negatively in mock job interviews. Tampons are taxed as “non-necessities” because only women have periods.

The only solution, it appears, is to normalize office crying for everyone. Not unlike other unpleasant things, crying happens. Men shouldn’t reap the unfair advantage of a mid-meeting misting, and women shouldn’t worry that on top of their own embarrassment, they’re being judged as manipulative and incompetent. It’s 2016, and American workers are trembling under the weight of all their stress. Enough with the sniffling behind bathroom stalls or pretending it’s allergy season. If we can’t stop judging our colleagues when they cry at work, at the very least we should stop judging ourselves.