Learning not to cry in today’s work place

June 26th, 2008 in Career, women

One of the things I'm passionate about is encouraging women in technology. With that in mind, I'm going to talk about something that's never discussed in mixed company: crying at work. Or rather, trying desperately not to cry at work. I'll tell you how I try not to cry at work and I'll tell you how you can help someone who's trying not to cry: create space. Tell a joke, change the subject for a minute.

Nyki_m
I cry easily. I cry when I'm frustrated, mad or hurt. I used to not worry about it until one day a roommate told me – after an argument – that when I cried he assumed I was sorry. I was so mad – I cried!

Trying not to cry has always been really hard for me. The tears come, you discretely try to wipe them off, you stare at the ceiling, you think about something else, … it wasn't until I got pregnant that I figured out how to get rid of them. Most of the time anyway.

I did once have the chance to ask a psychologist about trying not to cry. He said he could teach me through lots of role playing and different skills to just not cry. But he wouldn't want to – crying was healthy.

Crying changed when I got pregnant a couple of years ago. When I first got pregnant, if I started to cry, I couldn't stop. There's nothing worse than being in a sales meeting, arguing about whether book covers should be blue or green, and all of a sudden you're crying. And you can't stop. And everyone is looking at you. And they don't know you're pregnant, they just see you bawling about some stupid book covers. I went for a lot of walks there for a while. I think the janitor was really worried about me. Thankfully the next stage of pregnancy set in quickly. During that stage I felt like I was set apart from discussions – maybe it was the eight inches of stomach between me and them – but I just didn't really care. I mostly felt detached humor.

Feeling detached works well for not crying and I can still recreate that feeling (without getting pregnant) but it doesn't work well when you're passionate. And I'm passionate about a lot of the things I work on. I don't want to feel detached. Humor's ok, but not detachment.

So I've worked out two things that help me not cry. (Now consider that I think that the best thing would probably be just to cry and let people deal with it. I'm me. But if the other person is going to think I'm sorry, well, I guess for now I'll work on not crying. Next we'll work on teaching the world there's more reasons to cry than I'm sorry.)

The two things that help me not cry when I don't want to be crying are:

  1. It's not about me. I'm going to write a whole blog post about "It's not about me" but for I'll talk about it briefly here. When I get so frustrated that I'm about to cry – when I'm so upset that he doesn't understand why the covers have to be blue in order for us to be successful – I remember it's not about me. He's arguing that the covers need to be green because every company he's ever worked at, the covers have been green. And he told his kid all covers should be green. And he's never seen a blue cover – what kind of crazy people would make blue covers? And … you get the picture. (Substitute "proprietary software" and "open source" for green and blue …) So I'm not just fighting that he thinks these covers should be green – I'm fighting 20 years worth of green covers. It's not just about me and now.
  2. Space. If I can create just a little bit of space, I'm usually good to go. Humor is really good for this. Recently I went back to HP for a meeting and realized how much I miss the humor they inject into their meetings. There's a continuous undercurrent of good natured banter. I use that now whenever I need it. So just recently, a colleague questioned the value of my work. (Actually, I thought he questioned the value of my work. See number one, it's not all about me.) While he was trying to back peddle himself out of a hole I'd put him in, I felt those tears coming, so I clapped both hands to my chest and whispered "But it's me!" It wasn't very funny but one other person in the room laughed and I was able to chuckle, the tears were gone, and I could listen again.

In an ideal world, I think I would just cry when I felt like it. In today's world, if I start crying, I'm spending so much energy worrying what the other person is thinking and trying not to cry, that I'm no longer effectively listening or discussing. So in the interest of being able to work effectively in today's environment, I work hard not to cry.

I figured my story might help others or might encourage others to share their tips and tricks or experiences.

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Photo by nyki_m.

14 Responses to “Learning not to cry in today’s work place”

  1. Stormy,
    thanks for sharing this one with us. Very honest and personal.
    I never cried at work, don’t know if I ever will. Yet, I do think that emotions in general are very important at work, especially when things go wrong.
    People tend to think that when things go wrong, it is important to act highly rational. Quite the opposite is true. It is rather important to tell others clearly how you feel about the problem and what you want to change (even if it is another person’s or groups behavior).
    And you don’t tell your emotions because you believe that things will change, you do so to draw a line between you and the others. This line is important to continue discussions with each other, getting a good understanding of different expectations and perceptions.

  2. Stormy,
    being of Italian heritage, when I’m passionate about something, and even when I’m not ;-) I can be emotional about it. That may be pounding on the table, shouting with joy, hugs, or even crying.
    I have noticed that East Coasters tend to be more comfortable with emotion in the workplace than do folk further west, including Chicago, Denver, and even here in the San Francisco Bay.
    Project managers back east can spend all day yelling and shouting at each other, and then go for crabs and beer after the meeting is done. Out here, not so much.
    If we ever happen to work together, feel free to cry. I won’t take it as an admission that you’re wrong – what a silly interpretation, anyway. I’ld probably just cry with you. :-D

  3. Stormy says:

    Thanks for the insights, Sandro and Joseph.
    I agree, Sandro, if you ignore the emotions, it’s hard to get on with the discusiion.
    Joseph, your last sentence made me laugh out loud!

  4. benr says:

    Awesome post Stormy! Very few people have the guts to write truly honest posts like this one. Thanks for bringing out the issue.

  5. Runa says:

    I would have to agree with benr here. Awesome post! :)

  6. Anonymous to Public says:

    This is great that you have posted this. I’m a well-known (male) executive in the Open Source space, and I constantly worry about this issue. Ever since I was kid, I cry relatively easily. While I’ve never encountered, as you have, people thinking that I was accepting blame because I cried, I have experienced the emotional difficulty of being taken less seriously when, in the heat of a complicated business disagreement, that I’ve started crying.
    The whole idea that we are supposed to cease to be people with beliefs and feelings when we work is one of the reasons I’ve focused so much on Open Source. Unfortunately, it often seems that whether you’re in Open Source or proprietary software, the only emotion that is seen as acceptable is anger (and sometimes humor), and somehow these are the only accepted “business ready”.
    I have paid close attention to feminist issues in the workplace issues, and often heard jokes (usually from women themselves) that all a “Women in the workplace” seminars teach you is “how not to cry at work”.
    Meanwhile, as a man who has often been looked down upon because he’s capable of crying in the workplace, I actually fall on the other side of this: we should be changing our workplaces so that anger and humor aren’t the only accepted emotions.
    Nevertheless, I commend your attempts to find new ways to deal with the situation.

  7. Stormy says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I liked your point of acceptable emotions:
    > the only emotion that is seen as acceptable is anger (and
    > sometimes humor), and somehow these are the only accepted
    > “business ready”.
    As the parent of two boys, I worry that our society teaches boys that the only acceptable emotions are anger and humor. We tell them not to cry. (I actively argue with people who say “don’t be a girl, stop crying”!)
    I don’t think it’s healthy to channel all emotions into anger.

  8. JM Ibanez says:

    In my case, I find that I have a hard time raising my voice even though I am not angry. It’s weird — when I am quite passionate about something, and when discussing something, I tend to raise my voice as though I was lecturing a large classroom instead of talking in a small face-to-face meeting. I find it hard to modulate my voice, especially when I’m passionate.

  9. Stormy says:

    JM,
    I’ve discovered that I respond to loud voices differently depending on whether I’m speaking English or Spanish! In both cases, I get loud too, but in English I can feel myself getting mad too because usually when somebody is yelling in English, they are angry. In Spanish, I more often just get loud, maybe passionate.
    Stormy

  10. Patty says:

    I really thought I was abnormal since even as a child, I would cry over anything and people would tell me to stop crying and grow up. Even as an adult now (55 years old)I have moments that I just cannot stop those tears.I cry still because as you said I am very passionate about life in general. I can cry over commercials I see on TV if they are the least bit touching. I recently went overseas for a month and had a severe situation that I felt trapped in and all I could do was sleep or feel like crying. The person I was staying with would always tell me “Look at you, You are a grown woman crying about nothing.” It made me feel worse, so now I am going to therapy to find out why I don’t get seem to get mad, but instead cry and feel helpless. I am so glad to hear there are others out there that feel the same way. Thanks!
    p.s. by the way, my horse’s name is Stormy!

  11. Jessica says:

    Thank you all for you much needed comments and to you Stormy. I was reading this posting at 2 am this morning because I was anticipating my boss yelling at me for a minor error today and knowing that I would cry in response. I have always tried to only show others my very strong side and hide my tears that always end up coming when I can get away from the group. Lately, it’s be harder and harder not to cry. I always thought if I cried it showed weakness, especially at work. My husband has always called me passionate and after reading the above posts, I have come to realize that sometimes my passion shows itself in tears and I feel better knowing that. Thank you all!!
    P.S.
    My grouch boss called in sick. Guess I have to wait till Monday to cry.

  12. Phillip says:

    Be careful crying at the workplace. I’ve had 5 corporate jobs over the past two decades, and everyone that I’ve seen cry at work (there have be a few) has been let go within a few weeks.

  13. Ella says:

    I’m a student, not an employee, but this was great for me too. I cry a lot when I laugh, or when I get into fights. This doesn’t just apply in the workplace, it works for school too! Thanks.

  14. CeAnn says:

    I cry when I’m mad, sad, happy and mostly frustrated. I have found this to hold me back in meetings with my bosses especially because people don’t see crying as a sign of frustration. I hate conflict and that is all that can come out if I’m upset. It has held me back many times if i have felt the need to stand up for myself because all I can do is cry. I am so passionate about everything in my life to the point where I have tried to care less about things like my job where I have had to learn to clock in and go home without letting it get to me. I also find that when I’m upset I have to write down all the points that I want to make in a conversation before it actually takes place otherwise I just forget everything I wanted to say and just sit there. My husband hates this because he feels like I cannot talk to him, but it is just that I will get so emotional I will clam up and not know what to say or how to get it out.