If you’ve ever cried at work, you may be able to relate to the recent Saturday Night Live sketch “PowerPoint.” In it, a pair of receptionists played by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon burst into tears in front of their colleagues at a Microsoft training session as soon as their mock PowerPoint presentation appears on the projector screen. The presentation is, to be fair, not very good. The first page features nothing but layers of empty squares and the desperate lowercase missive, “help.”
“We’re so sorry,” Bryant sobs as the befuddled Microsoft instructors attempt to reassure them. “We made trash, sir,” McKinnon chimes in. “We’re going to be fired and slapped.”
Objectively, the situation is extremely low-stakes. They’re just making PowerPoint presentations for practice in an optional workshop. But the characters are crying because the exercise has tapped into something deeper: Their insecurities about their intelligence and capabilities. (“I am not diligent about brushing my teeth!” Bryant sobs. “I don’t do it every day or whatever.”)
Not all of us have cried over PowerPoint. But many of us—45% of American workers, according to a 2018 survey of 1,000 adults—have cried at the office.
That’s perfectly normal, according to Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and author of the new book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. In her view, crying at work isn’t a problem. What needs to be fixed are cultural norms about what tears mean and how we react to them.
“The only people who never show emotion at work are the ones who are completely disengaged,” Davey says. “The only way not to feel emotional about getting tough feedback or not getting a promotion is not to care.” If employers and managers want employees who are truly invested in doing good work, she says, they’ve got to accept that tears come with the territory.
Moreover, she says, crying at work can actually be useful. Tears, as well as other emotional displays, alert managers and coworkers to the existence of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. Davey compares emotional pain to physical pain: “Emotion is just a symptom.” Just as a twinge in your leg can be a sign you need to take some time off from jogging, an employee who cries after you send them an email asking them to revise a project may be experiencing a deeper struggle, perhaps with your communication style—a problem that you can fix by switching from email to phone chats, say.
Still, even if we accept the idea that tears are fine and natural, it can be hard to figure out what to do when they come upon us unexpectedly. Here are Davey’s recommendations about how to respond in the face of tears, whether you’re the one crying or the one offering a tissue.
What to say when someone starts crying at work
A lot of people tend to freeze up or panic when confronted with tears. That may be because they’re personally uncomfortable with emotional displays, or because they have the (incorrect) notion that crying is unprofessional, or because they feel responsible for provoking the tears in the first place.
The right thing to do, Davey says, is to work through whatever catalyzed the tears in the first place. She recommends asking an open-ended question that gives the crier an opportunity to explain what triggered the waterworks. A few possibilities:
“Seems like this is important to you. Tell me more about it.”
“Where are you at?”
“How did that land?”
In other words, don’t focus on the tears themselves; let the other person tell you what they need you to focus on.
What to do when a direct report cries at work
A lot of managers wonder if they ought to suggest a break. Davey says that in the majority of cases—“if a tissue will deal, and you don’t need a bucket”—it’s actually better for both parties to stay put in order to minimize potential awkwardness. “If the person has to run out and they go to the bathroom and they’re a mess, then there’s the embarrassment of having to walk back in. It’s painful.”
What managers should do is signal that it’s okay to be emotional. “That actually helps dissipate the emotion,” Davey notes. “Take a moment to say, ‘I need to understand this and how you’re experiencing this,’ showing curiosity, and where possible saying, ‘I’m so glad you shared that with me’ or ‘I didn’t realize that.’” This makes the other person feel heard, which is what most of us want, at work or anywhere else.
Once you’ve given the other person the opportunity to explain the problem as they see it, Davey says, it’s time to start leading the conversation toward constructive next steps. She recommends asking, “Where do we go from here?” or “How do we make it better?”
What to do if a co-worker cries while talking to you
Much of the same advice applies when the person crying is a co-worker and not a direct report, but it can also be nice to offer a change of scene by taking a quick walk or stepping out for coffee.
“Just moving around unlocks the conversation a bit,” Davey says. “It gives the body something to do instead of being emotional.” (If you’re the boss, it may be okay to suggest a walk, but you run the risk of distraction. As a manager, Davey says, your primary focus should be on working through whatever prompted the tears, since the subject will likely be harder to revisit in the future.)
What to do if you cry at work
A lot of people feel embarrassed about crying at work. But Davey says tears are nothing to be ashamed of—and as a self-identified crier, she speaks from experience. She recalls how she normalized crying with her former boss. “I had to train him: Liquids are squishing from my face that I have no control over, my brain is still fine, keep going. He would sometimes keep a Kleenex in his notebook.” Over time, he learned to take tears in stride.
If you start crying in front of your boss or co-workers, it can help to acknowledge the tears and explain what you’re feeling in the moment. “Part of our responsibility is to say, ‘Yes, I’m crying, keep going, this is just frustration or I’m tired,” Davey says.
Still, there may be situations in which we’d rather quell our tears. On that front, Davey offers a counterintuitive piece of advice: “If you want to stop crying, tell yourself, ‘try and cry,’” she says. Crying is usually involuntary; even if you try to hold it in, the tears are likely to keep flowing. So try urging yourself to do the opposite, to go ahead and cry. It’s an active and arresting way to focus the mind mid-cry and just might do the trick.
Other alternatives: Push your tongue to the roof of your mouth to help stop tears, as Janine Driver, CEO of the Body Language Institute in Washington, tells the New York Times. Or you can try squeezing your butt muscles, also known as the “squeezing sphincter clench,” which is distracting in its own right. “When I’ve tried it, it’s a forcing function, that seems to get rid of the involuntary reflex,” Davey says.
What to do after you’ve cried in front of someone else
It’s a good idea to follow up after an emotional conversation. But one thing Davey really, really doesn’t want you to do is to send an email or Slack message apologizing for crying.
“That’s going back to this idea that emotions are bad or emotions are wrong,” she says. “If we’re gonna give 12 hours a day to our jobs and give all the benefit of our passions and engagement, part of the price is sometimes we’ll get emotional.”
Instead of saying sorry, Davey recommends saying thank you. A sample text: “Thank you so much for hearing me out on this important issue. It means so much to me that you had the patience to let me get to the other side of this and help me see things differently.”
Sending a follow-up note is also an opportunity to reinforce whatever reaction you found to be useful or supportive, whether it was a co-worker making you a cup of tea or a boss who clarified a miscommunication. In sum, Davey says: “Follow up with gratitude for what the person did that helped.”
The politics of crying
Statistically speaking, women are more likely to cry than men—and that holds true in the workplace as well as in the home. Anne Reamer surveyed 700 people for her book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace and found that 41% of women said they’d cried at work, compared to 9% of men.
As Olga Khazan notes in The Atlantic, the gender breakdown can be explained by both biological and social factors. “Men generate more testosterone, which inhibits crying, while women produce more prolactin, which seems to promote it,” she writes. Boys are also raised to view crying as a sign of weakness and irrationality—hence the scornful expression “to cry like a girl.” And as Khazan notes, women’s tears are frequently viewed as a sign that they lack control over their emotions, whereas guys who get teary are seen as “real men” who aren’t afraid to show their vulnerable side.
All this sets up a situation wherein women are at once more likely to cry at work—and more likely to be condemned for it.
To Davey, these gender dynamics mean that men especially (but also women) should take care to check their assumptions about what the tears of their female colleagues mean. “One of the things men get wrong about women who cry at work is they think the women are hurt or fragile,” Davey says. “My experience is many women who cry in the workplace are just really angry and frustrated.” That’s why it’s so important to give the person who’s misting up, whether it’s a man or a woman, space to lead the conversation.
Lastly, while crying at work should be seen as perfectly acceptable, widespread, frequent tears in the workplace may be a sign that there’s a cultural problem that needs to be dealt with. Consider The New York Times’ memorable 2015 Amazon expose, in which weeping at the retail giant’s corporate offices was a recurring theme. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” said one former Amazon worker.
If people seem to be crying at your office a lot, think of it as a diagnostic tool, and start taking steps to identify what’s wrong with the work environment. And don’t be surprised if the bulk of the tears seem to be coming from women, people of color, or workers from marginalized communities. As Davey says: “Emotions show up when people don’t feel heard or understood.”
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.