Crying at Work: Is It Ever Acceptable?

A new book says showing emotion in the office might not be as bad as you think

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made at work was telling my (heartless) co-workers the (tragic) story of the baby whale who got lost in waters off Australia, mistakenly thought a yacht was its mother, refused to be led into the ocean away from its “mom” and then starved to death while trying to feed off the boat.

And then I cried.

It wasn’t full-out weeping, or some messy ugly cry, it was just a couple small tears. (I mean  … Baby! Missing Mom! Death!) But that cinched it: I was a crier.

Fast forward a couple years, and it came as no great surprise when one of the witnesses to the tears sent me a book review from Sunday’s New York Times about a book called It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace.

That she thought of me when she read the review made me laugh, but truth is, emotion in the workplace is something I’ve thought a lot about. Whale-Gate isn’t the only time I’ve lost the battle to keep a stiff upper lip at work, to my great chagrin. I try very hard to fight what I feel like is a biological condition—an excess of saline, or hyperactive empathy button or something. And by sheer will, I generally succeed. In my personal life, I am a veritable wellspring; at work, I aim to be the Sahara. Because that’s what is required. Because emotion at work—especially when accompanied by tears—is not cool, and does a woman absolutely no favors. Because nothing puts you at a disadvantage like a shaky voice and quivering lip.

Because there’s no crying in baseball.

But now comes word, in the New York Times no less, of a book arguing that greater emotional openness is a good thing. Huh. That as women rise higher in the workplace, so, too, will the threshold for emotion in that workplace. That a moment of trembly voice sometimes is okay. That emotions are not relevant factors in gauging one’s ability to lead successfully.

I knew that. I’ve always known that emotion didn’t hinder people from being good at their jobs. I’ve known that sometimes, it even helps. But that this unpopular idea gets endorsement from both the book’s author and the reviewer (an editor at Slate) got me thinking:

Shedding an occasional work tear is a feminist issue.

Look, I know not all women show their emotions at work, and that’s cool. I won’t paint an entire gender with any sort of sniffly brush—many, many female colleagues I’ve known would no sooner cry at work than spit on the boss. (And as for men crying—well, they should more than they do, but most don’t very often, and that’s just a whole other post.)

Realistically speaking, to the extent that crying in the office is an issue, it is a woman’s issue. Anger (stereotypically the acceptable male emotion) has been deemed perfectly acceptable at work; tears (stereotypically women’s territory) are not. Which fits into a distinctive pattern: We women live—and work—in a world run by men’s rules, men’s schedules, men’s lives. (How else to explain the general lack of on-site child care in this country? The continued discrepancy between men and women’s salaries? The fact that I have never once worked in a building that had a space for nursing mothers?)

So when an idea like this comes along—the idea that it’s okay to treat a difference as an acceptable difference instead of trying to force me into workplace rules and norms that were created by and for someone else—well, maybe this is what equality really looks like.

Even if it only lives right now in a book.