Crying shame?


The first person I ever worked for, aside from babysitting jobs, was a woman.  She was impossibly tall, in her mid-30s and dressed like Stevie Nicks would if she managed high school students at the local library.  She was pregnant and dealing with a number of complications as a result.  Sometimes, when she was feeling horrible, she would cry.  I'd walk into her cubicle, rosy-cheeked and eager as a 16 year-old can be, and she would sometimes just need a shoulder to cry on.  I obliged and not because she approved my timesheets, but because she was a human being...crying.  How could I not be compassionate?  I was a teenager; I cried a lot.  The cues I was receiving from her told me that I was perfectly normal as a person and an employee if I need to shed a few tears.

That was close to 14 years ago.  Since then I've worked in a number of places including toy stores, bookstores, flower shops, grocery stores, home furnishing stores and libraries again.  I've worked for an incredible variety of people; men and women, high school dropouts and doctoral candidates, nice people and assholes, straight folks and big ol' gays, recovering addicts and full-force coke-snorting spastics.  Among the basic principles of being a good employee that I've learned over the years, like being on time, not cheating on your time sheet, not stealing and being respectful, I've been taught that crying at work...AT ALL...is inappropriate.

One of my positions, in which I was attempting to climb the management ladder, was particularly difficult for me because I worked under a team of alpha-men.  As a lesbian, they "expected" certain traits to exist in me without question...the ability to lift heavy things without asking for help from a man (check), the ability to be assertive with men who were my subordinates (check), the ability to drink beer and smoke cigarettes with dudes on the loading dock after hours (check), and to be completely stripped of "feminine" emotions (uh, not check).  In a quarterly review, I was told that I needed to be more diplomatic with the staff and that I also needed to stop crying when I was stressed out or when I was being disciplined for doing something wrong BECAUSE it made the Male Management Team uncomfortable.

Uh, ok.

Looking back at that experience, it doesn't come as any surprise to me that I shut down and wound up committing an error at work so egregious that they had to fire me.  I was essentially asked to not be myself.  It's an interesting component of capitalism, the economic model that prizes individuality, that individuals are discouraged from being uniquely themselves while working.  For me, that includes crying.  It's how I relieve stress, it's how I clear my head, it's how I react to my own mistakes.  But in "business" it's discouraged.  It's considered a sign of weakness, a vulnerability that indicates to your superiors that you might not be able to handle more complex assignments or responsibilities.  It apparently indicates that you are an emotionally fragile failure.

I can logically trace the path which brought us here.  Afterall misogyny, whether from the mouth of men or learned by women as a means to "get ahead", is pervasive and sinister.  I also think that emotions threaten people, and the expectation to contain them ultimately causes even the most "stable" people to become frustratingly detached from what upsets them and how they should express it.  Yesterday, in response to feeling overwhelmed, I cried at work and in front of my boss.  Since then I've felt inconsolable guilt and shame about releasing my anxiety and tension in that way.  The reality is, however, that crying is merely one way in which people release anxiety and tension.  The release is my way of saying "I cannot control this situation" instead of packing it inside myself and forcing it onto other people.  I've had coworkers in the past who have created wildly hostile workplaces in moments when they felt personally overwhelmed.  Some people were edgy or overtly angry, some people attempted to control the work of the entire department, some checked out completely and become wildly ineffective, some have been rude, some were loud and sarcastic, and some people just quit.

I continue to fail at understanding why I can't cry, or why I am made to feel so bad about myself after I do it.  Do you cry?  Or not cry?  Why?  There's got to be a way that people can have emotions at work and display them in ways that are simultaneously effective as a release and not disruptive to the greater mission of the organization.

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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.