What Crying at Work Says About You

What crying at work says about you, first according to science, then according to Philly Mag staffers.

About six months ago, a coworker and I were on a hike through the Wissahickon, passing our time traipsing through the woods with a game of Would You Rather, (because how else does one pass time on a hike other than with inappropriate hypotheticals?) when I asked her this question: “Would you rather our boss sob in front of you — like hysterical, ‘Do you need me to call a doctor?’ sobbing — OR would you rather sob, in the same fashion, in front of him?”

Her answer threw me: “I’d rather he sob in front of me. 100 percent.”

In jaw-dropping news, my friend had never once cried at work, let alone in front of her boss. This also threw me, as I assumed everyone on planet earth had shed a few tears in front of their boss at some point. The first time I cried in front of my boss was when I was 19 years old, and the story actually makes me laugh now. I was working the graveyard shift at a diner, and one of my tables accused me of weight shaming them for asking if they wanted mayonnaise with their burgers. (It was the restaurant’s policy to ask if customers wanted mayo with burgers, because mayo was served in ramekins prepared in the kitchen and asking during ordering made everyone’s life easier.) I was frustrated that a question I had asked hundreds of people could be so massively misunderstood. And my reaction was tears. From then on, the floodgates have been pretty open. And every single time since then, when I’ve cried in front of a boss — or at work in general — the tears have been two things: caused by frustration and entirely uncontrollable.

So when my coworker told me she wouldn’t want to cry in front our boss for fear of relinquishing any power she may have, I was surprised. Of all the times I have cried at work, I have never once thought I’d all of a sudden transformed into a powerless weakling in the eyes of my superior or my coworkers. I figured all those times I’d cried (let’s say 10 total), the person on the receiving end had just been concerned with how they could get me and my ever-reddening face out of their office as quickly as possible. But this conversation got me wondering what people think when they see others (me) cry at work. Do they think I’m unhinged? Bad at my job? Weak?

Science would suggest that people do see those who cry at work as less competent. As TIME reports, a recent study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that when folks looked at two photos, one of someone with tears running down their cheeks and another of the same person with the tears edited out of the photo, and were asked if they would like to work with the person in the photo on a big work project, the study participants perceived the person with visible tears as less competent. As one of the study authors told TIME, “It seems that people who cry are seen as less competent persons in general.”


The thing that’s frustrating about this perception that people who shed a few tears every now and then are less capable than the stoics who don’t is that crying is an involuntary reaction. Most times, if I had a choice, my cheeks would stay dry. After all, my ugly-cry face is something I’d rather only my mother, who loves me unconditionally, be exposed to.

Scientists don’t seem to have a solid explanation for why exactly adult humans cry either. As TIME outlines, there are theories, though: crying triggers social bonding and human connection by signaling to others that you are feeling helpless; crying is a form of manipulation to neutralize others’ anger; crying removes toxic build-up in the blood caused by stress (this one is lacking evidence). But in the end, there is no one solid explanation for why we cry.

There is some scientific backing for the idea that women are bigger criers than men though: As The Atlantic explained in a piece talking about gender dynamics and crying at work earlier this year, “Part of the explanation is hormonal: Men generate more testosterone, which inhibits crying, while women produce more prolactic, 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.” A study from the 1980s that’s cited often found that women cried an average of 5.3 times per month while men cried an average of 1.4 times per month.

One thing I know for sure is that I cry a lot. Sometimes at work. And I can’t for the life of me help it.

So to get some more in depth answers about what people think about others (me) who cry at work, I surveyed 24 of my coworkers. The questions I asked all of them: Have you ever cried at work? What do you think when you see someone crying at work? When you see someone crying at work, do you think they are less competent at their job? Would you rather cry in front of your boss or have your boss cry in front of you?

Long story short, after learning so (so, SO) many interesting tidbits about my office place (How many people have cried in the head honcho’s office, you ask? That would be six. I was one of them, naturally.), I was surprised to find that no, most of my coworkers don’t see crying at work as a sign of weakness or incompetence (at least not admittedly so). And the main reasons for crying at work amongst those who had done it (that would be 13 of the 24) were frustration — whether that meant feeling overworked, feeling hopeless in a situation, or feeling angry about a decision that was made — and having an already strained relationship with authority figures.

I learned a LOT from talking to my coworkers about crying at work — too much to ever put into writing. But a few common and surprising themes of what crying at work says about you, according to my coworkers, below.

1. Crying can actually be a sign that you are just really passionate about your job.
A good chunk of coworkers I talked to said that crying in response to a serious work frustration signals to them that you just care about your job — a lot. And that’s a good thing.

2. But if you cry about every work frustration, you risk being seen as a bit dramatic.
While some of my coworkers said that crying could signal dedication and passion for your job, many of my coworkers noted that if crying is a pattern — and it’s happening just about as often as you run to the office coffee machine — they might view it as you responding with unnecessary dramatics, which is not a good thing.

3. Tears signal stress.
Many of my coworkers assumed that when they saw people crying, their tears were indicative of work stress. But most didn’t see someone being stressed at work (at least not in our work place) as a sign of incompetence. Because let’s face it: Everyone is stressed.

4. Crying doesn’t mean you’re weak — but still, no one really wants to cry in front of their boss.
When I asked the question, “Does crying at work make someone seem less competent to you?” a surprisingly large portion of my coworkers — most of them, actually — said no. Only two of my coworkers (both criers) admitted to seeing others crying as a sign of weakness. BUT that all changed when I asked whether my coworkers would want to cry in front of our boss or have our boss cry in front of them. All of the coworkers who said they would rather our boss cry in front of them named fear of being seen as weak as their reason. So even though many of my coworkers claimed they didn’t see others as weak or incompetent when they cried at work, they still believed their boss would see them as weak if they were to burst into tears in front of them.

My biggest takeaway from spending way too many hours discussing the crying habits of my coworkers was that crying at work isn’t nearly as much of a nail in your career coffin as books like “If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You” and science would suggest, at least not in the field of magazine journalism. Granted, our office place is one where having a hula hoop and a bar in your office also isn’t frowned upon, so surely the answers would be a bit different if my coworkers were all lawyers.

So now, I’m curious to hear from all you other humans in other fields out there: In your opinion, what does crying at work say about you? Sound off in the comments section below.

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