Ms. Lam noted that crying at work can build a measure of trust between co-workers, but it can also make those around you uncomfortable. It’s OK to try to ease their discomfort by saying, “pardon my tears,” she said.
Dr. Elsbach told me that she doesn’t think it’s “right or justified” that people judge co-workers and women in particular for crying in the workplace. “I believe that crying is a normal behavior that should not be perceived negatively at work,” she said.
But since it often is, she has advice, based on her research, for how to mitigate any negative effects of an office cry. It can be helpful to leave the situation, she said, or just make a visible attempt to get your tears under control. Try to make sure your cry doesn’t disrupt the work of others. And if your cry does distract others from their work, just apologize. She also noted that the office going-away party is one situation where crying at work is more accepted.
“There is a double standard for the expression of emotion through crying vs. the expression of emotion through other behaviors,” Dr. Elsbach said. “If you cry because you are frustrated, you are perceived much more negatively than if you raise your voice or pound a table if you are frustrated.”
Alison Green, creator of the Ask a Manager podcast and website, said that when a person cries at work, it’s also worth reflecting on what prompted the emotional reaction.
I took her advice and reflected on the reasons behind my tears. The co-worker is an editor with whom I’ve worked for several years, but the past 15 months have been unusually intense. At the height of the pandemic, she and another colleague and I were working together around the clock to produce a voluminous number of stories related to helping readers stay safe and avoid Covid-19. We had a true sense of purpose and mission, and she is a thoughtful and careful editor who made my work better. I don’t think I could have gotten through 2020 without her.
I shared this context with Ms. Green, who said that 2020 was an unusual year for workers. “I sort of throw everything out the window when it comes to emotional reactions for things related to the past year!” she told me. “People have been under so much stress, and so many emotions are so close to the surface. That context makes a difference.”