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The F Word: What’s Up With Crying At Work?

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Welcome to The F Word, where we, Skillcrush staffers Lauren Lang and Julia Sonenshein, discuss issues that impact all of us—both in and out of the workplace. We know that for us, coming to understand the f-word (in this case, feminism), and how important it is in the scope of our lives, didn’t happen overnight. We hope you’ll join us once a month as we meet to discuss power, workplace politics, and how exactly to respond when your male coworker asks you to take notes at that staff meeting. Again.

Julia: And we’re back! Lauren, today we are tackling a subject I have a lot of thoughts about—and I know you do too: crying at work. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and I’m sure you, dear reader, have done it, too. In fact, in news that is completely devastating, one of the most popular search terms around the topic is “how to stop crying at work,” which means a lot of you are struggling.

I want to start by talking about the first time I cried in front of someone at work. It actually wasn’t until this job at Skillcrush, and it completely took me by surprise. I was having a video meeting with a coworker (Brian, our resident freelancing book club expert) when frustration about the day I was having just gripped me. Maybe it was because we work from home so I was sitting on my couch and it felt relaxed or maybe because Brian and I are close friends, but it just happened. I was totally shocked by it. It wasn’t just crying—it was in a meeting, and in front of a male coworker. He was extremely supportive and lovely, but that was a completely new experience.

But when I think back to the times when I’ve cried at work in the past, it’s a little heartbreaking. I always took deep, measured breaths until I was away from my coworkers and then cried in the bathroom, alone, not returning to my desk until I looked 100 percent back-to-normal. I kept concealer and mascara in my desk so I could reapply and nobody would be the wiser.

Over my career, I’ve cried at work for a number of reasons, but mostly it’s been out of frustration or anger. Maybe my coworkers screwed up something high stakes, or I screwed up and was furious at myself. But the fact that I have historically been so terrified to show myself crying tells me we have this huge problem: What’s the matter with crying, anyways?

Lauren, have you ever had the honor of crying at work? Let’s cry it out together.

Lauren: Hey Julia! I’m about to cry tears of excitement about this latest installment at any moment. GET READY.

So yes: I think back to when I have cried in my life, and 99 percent of the time it was not out of pure grief or loss. Instead, I’ve cried in exasperation during fights with family members or (now ex-) boyfriends. I’ve cried in my car after long days at work in which I felt I was disrespected or undermined. I’ve cried at sheer injustice, against me and against others.

The two times I cried at work were out of feelings of powerlessness and frustration—a visceral reaction to not feeling like I could physically speak actual words to advocate for myself. Once was in a performance review when I was being severely micromanaged by a terrible leader and felt like I wasn’t being treated respectfully for what I brought to the table. Another was when a different boss made a mistake and got angry at me for not catching her oversight.

In both of these positions I was rather junior (they were over a decade ago) and I felt like I had no voice. Emotions surrounding that lack of power bottled up and literally flowed out of my eyes because I wasn’t able to express them any other way. Both of these times were in front of superiors. Both times I apologized profusely and was told not to take everything so “personally,” as if piss-poor management and character assault weren’t personally happening to me. And both times, Julia, I felt SUCH SHAME. Like I was a stupid little girl throwing a tantrum. Like there was something wrong with me and I had committed a profoundly unprofessional offense. I was mortified; I wanted to run away and join a hippie commune somewhere where I’d never have to function in a typical job ever again.

Julia, why do you think crying at traditional workplaces is so taboo? What does this assumption say about how the professional world sees emotion?

Julia: I’m so with you. Frustration, anger, and bad days all happen, and it’s reasonable to need a way to express that. But I always felt that if I showed any ounce of vulnerability, I’d be undermined as a leader or taken less seriously as a colleague.

In my view, the assumption being made about emotion in the workplace is one that’s based on how we qualify emotion: The prevailing thought is that crying comes from feminine emotions like sadness and anxiety. And misogyny runs deep through the workplace: having a feminine reaction is unprofessional and not befitting of a leader. But this misses a critical point, which is that like both of our experiences noted, crying isn’t necessarily about sadness or anxiety. It’s often about fucking anger.

And we see anger in the workplace all the time, but it’s the version that’s somehow more palatable: male anger. I’ve seen shouting, doors slammed, papers thrown, all by men in positions of power, and nobody has ever questioned their temperamental ability to function. In fact, this is our collective ideal of a boss—a mercurial male CEO blustering about, shouting edicts. We call this “decisive,” or “strong leadership.” But really, these are just emotional outbursts that we tolerate, or even glorify.

But people who present as female who feel anger or frustration in the workplace are taught that crying is the only option. For a woman to yell, she’s shrill. If a woman slams a door, she’s unhinged. There’s no socially acceptable way for women to express anger or frustration at work besides crying, and then they’re punished for their overly emotional response.

Lauren, it feels to me like women are trapped in a paradox: We can’t cry, but we can’t do anything else, right? And why is it that angry women cry while angry men yell? Where do you think that comes from?

Lauren: It’s all that sugar and spice and everything nice! (Blech.)

It’s not enough that women can’t express anger—we’re not even supposed to feel it. It comes back to how women are conditioned even as children. Years of therapy eventually revealed that I was overly deferential to my employers—and any older or more powerful person in my life, really—because I felt subconsciously afraid of disappointing them, of not toeing the line and being the rule-following, people-pleasing, A-student “good girl” that I had always been in my youth. And when that conditioning came face-to-face with knowing that something was deeply wrong with how I was being treated, I experienced cognitive and emotional dissonance and literally COULD. NOT. HANDLE. IT.

Anger, indignation, annoyance, and rage are perfectly rational responses to the crap women and other marginalized people often face at work, whether it’s harassment or underestimation or something else. But when something perfectly anger-inducing occurs, and when women are taught that anything other than Stepford-wife “agreeableness” is wrong, and in fact that any reaction at all is an overreaction, what does that say about our feelings?

I’ll tell you what it says: It says that those feelings are invalid. It says that any woman’s feelings are just a gross byproduct of femininity—ugh, why do girls have to be so sensitive? Whatever happened, no matter what it was, it never merits the expression of icky female emotion we let slip through (raised voice, emphatic hand gestures, eye roll, sarcasm, neutral RBF, audible sigh).

But here’s where the brainwashing really comes in. If our feelings are wrong, then logic dictates that the events or interactions that have inspired those feelings, in turn, are somehow acceptable. After that initial surge of emotion, we rationalize them away:

Maybe I should have triple-checked those numbers she gave me.
They probably asked me to change the toilet paper just because they know I’m responsible.
My boss only screamed at me because he’s stressed. I should be doing more.
If I didn’t want them to go behind my back, I should have been paying more attention.

Don’t take it so personally, right? It’s easier to just swallow shit and move on, and the patriarchy wins, and we wake up the next morning and say to ourselves, “Well, at least I didn’t CRY.”

But yeah, angry men can yell at work. No consequences. No one bats an eye. Assertive leaders are the best!

Fuck.

Julia, save me from the depths of my nihilism with a fanciful thought experiment. How do we create a culture where demonstrating emotion/being human is okay? What would it look like, and what effects might it have on creating better environments?

Julia: I mean, fuck is right.

Here’s my ideal working world: It’s a world that acknowledges that employees are not mindless drones but complex humans who sometimes experience a wide range of emotion: joy, frustration, excitement, anxiety, sadness, pride, and hope. In this world, emotion isn’t gendered: everyone can experience all of these (as, you know, humans do), in a way that’s constructive and supported.

It’s tough because I don’t necessarily want to see more men crying or more women slamming doors, but I do want to find a non-gendered, healthy way for everyone to express the negative emotions that just come up in everyday life. And I think that knot is so tangled—and goes to the root of those negative emotions in the first place. In this ideal world, men don’t talk over women in meetings. Men don’t monopolize credit on a team project. Men aren’t taught that aggression is the only outlet for anger, and women aren’t taught the same about crying. Women are valued as leaders without being undermined. We don’t have to question ourselves constantly for having human reactions to stressful situations. Finally, we’d all acknowledge that experiencing emotion is separate from the ability to do good work or to lead.

Getting there is a harder question to answer, but I can tell you what I try to do in my everyday as a manager and coworker: I try really hard to check in with my team about how they’re feeling, and when they ask me, I force myself to be vulnerable and honest if it’s a hard week. I recognize that this is because of the culture here—this starts from the top and our CEO sets that tone. I try to find words for when I’m angry that don’t downplay how I’m feeling, even if it goes against a lifetime of conditioning. I practice saying “I’m feeling frustrated about the so-and-so project, and we need to talk about what went wrong” so that I can be clear about my feelings in a way that’s constructive and where I get support.

On a broader scale, I think we all need to work to stop punishing women for experiencing the same emotions that men do, and to recalibrate our idea of what is power. There is great power in vulnerability as there is in aggression, and neither need be gendered.

Lauren, you’re in a unique position that I can’t speak to: You’re raising a young girl. I know that there’s only so much we can do at work and a host of ways in which we need to start so much earlier, so that the next generation of the workforce isn’t unlearning what we were taught. Given the incredible badass feminist that you are, I know you’re raising your daughter with different ideas than we were raised with, and I honestly think that if we want to get to the bottom of this, we have to start at the beginning. What does that look like?

Lauren: Great question! Yes: I have a seven-year-old daughter. She is fierce in ways I never was as a pliable little moppet. I admire her in so many ways, and she’s amazing in her confidence. It will be a benefit to her as she grows up and takes her rightful place as our future overlord.

But I see her struggle when she’s angry, and all sorts of passive-aggressive behaviors come flying out. She issues ridiculous ultimatums (“Well, I guess I’m just going to go READ in my ROOM for a HUNDRED YEARS!”) and refuses to tell me what’s wrong when something is obviously wrong: “No, really. I’m fine. Just FINE.” She’s like the juvenile embodiment of every soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend in the first 15 minutes of a rom com, except that I don’t have the option to break up with her.

I worry about this sometimes, because why can’t she just say what she thinks? Passive aggression is a strategy women have been using forever to combat their own powerlessness…but it’s not really a healthy way to communicate. Does she feel silenced in some way? Am I an abject failure as a feminist parent? But then I remember: feelings are hard enough for adults who have fully formed amygdalas, let alone little kids. She’s trying to figure out how to communicate feelings—and the choice of passive aggression somehow seems safer to her than just getting openly pissed.

So there’s a lot of talk right now about the difference between feelings and behavior. I try to validate the emotion (even if her behavior is less than ideal) so that she can accept that she’s angry. I also encourage her to find and use her voice so that we can actually have a conversation about how to fix things.

But as the most prominent female role model in her life, it’s also my responsibility to walk the walk. I verbalize my feelings openly. I tell her I love her all the time. I tell her how proud I am to be her mom. Sometimes I get angry at her because kids can be messy and annoying, and the maturity with which I handle that emotion depends on the amount of sleep I got the night before. If I make a mistake in how I handle a situation, I apologize and try to do better.

I am far from perfect, but for heaven’s sake, I’m not a fembot—I’m a person. IT IS OKAY TO BE A PERSON. She needs to know that. And honestly, so does everyone else.

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