February 22, 2008
Hold the waterworks at work
Contra Costa Times
Jennifer Winston excused herself and walked out to her car before allowing her tears to flow.
She was working in the hotel industry, and a confrontational co-worker had left her upset.
"I felt like crying, but I wouldn't do it in front of people," says Winston. "I think in the workplace it shows weakness, and it makes everyone uncomfortable."
Tears often involve a complexity of emotions. They can be of elation, sorrow, stress, frustration — or all of the above. And while Winston was able to prevent public waterworks, much attention has been paid recently to figures in the media who have not. From Ellen DeGeneres' October sob-fest over her displaced puppy to Hillary Rodham Clinton's glistening eyes in a public campaign appearances, the way a person cries in public and over what can determine how the tears will be received.
Of enormous consequence is also whether said crier is a man or a woman. It's certainly no secret that a double standard exists: Men who cry are sensitive, while female criers are often labeled as overly emotional or even manipulative.
When it's OK to cry...
" 'Good tears' are tears under control — the moist eye, the almost-tears that show that a person feels very deeply, but still is in control of her or his emotion," says Stephanie Shields, psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Speaking from the Heart: Gender and the Social Meaning of Emotion."
So, Terrell Owens' recent quiver lip over a Dallas Cowboys' loss probably yielded more sympathy than DeGeneres' bawling or televangelist Jim Bakker's infamous wet face, circa 1989.
Public tears of joy or emotion — crying during a play, when accepting an Oscar, winning a sporting match or if your wife tells you she's pregnant — are also acceptable, says Peggy Klaus, author of "The Hard Truth About Soft Skills." So are tears that soften an otherwise steely persona — well done, Hillary — and tears of relief or pride.
After two co-workers attacked her programming and character, Lia Fischer was defended by her two supervisors. Later, when one of the managers asked Fischer how she felt about the situation, she welled up.
"I felt understood," says Fischer, who works at a nonprofit. "I've never worked for a corporation and been asked how I feel."
Shields' studies with fellow psychologist Leah Warner reveal that people's tears are viewed more positively when the event that elicits tears is personal or serious and one over which they have no control. So getting tragic news at work is viewed as a better reason to cry than your computer crashing.
... And when it's not
Work-related crying can hurt your career, says Klaus, who coaches Fortune 500 companies in communication.
"You have got to be able to detach yourself from the project or meeting at hand," she says. "Be cognizant of your emotional temperature. Learn how to mitigate it."
Rachel Arruda once cried at work. She'd just been notified of her grandfather's death. Now, as a manager in retail banking, Arruda tells how she deals with an employee who gets emotional in front of customers: "Take them in the back room and beat some sense into them," she says of unnecessary workplace crying. "It's not professional."
Theodore Kim works as a manager in computer operations for dot-coms. He describes it as a male-dominated, high-pressure environment, adding that every minute a client's computer system is down means a loss in revenue.
"The only two women who've ever reported to me have cried at work," says Kim, adding that a male subordinate he laid off also started tearing up. "It was very uncomfortable."
Kim told one female employee that "she screwed up" and that they "need to make sure it doesn't happen again." But when he noticed her tears, he tried to comfort her. "Don't take it so personally," he said. "It's work-related."
Based on his experiences, Kim says he feels he can be more direct and stern with male employees, who yell or pump their fists in response to stress, than female employees, who may cry.
"I don't like female direct reports because of it," he says. "When someone cries, you're automatically taken out of professional mode."
Boys do cry — and we can deal with that
Klaus calls it the "catastrophe creep." Women's genetic makeup and the way they are reared may explain why they cry more often, she says. But moreover, Klaus notes that her female clients tend to amplify a negative situation, turning rejection or anger inward and being riddled with self-doubt. Hence more watershed moments.
But, "as women enter the [male-dominated] executive suites in greater numbers, they have to submerge their personality into that of the corporation," says Tom Lutz, author of "Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears" and a University of California-Riverside professor. "They have to act rationally rather than emotionally, because that's what keeps the cogs of the industrial machine cogging along."
Ironically, it's white men who are given an advantage when it comes to crying, according to Warner's and Shield's 2005 study on the perception of crying in women and men. The psychologists presented 284 subjects with a series of vignettes and found that a controlled moist eye from a man evoked a "Mr. Sensitive" appreciation, while a woman who cried heavily was more likely to be perceived as overly emotional or out of control.
Another reason we favor male tears may be the increase of men tearing up in public life since the 1980s. Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," used tears in quite strategic ways, Shields says. Since then, every U.S. president, including Bill Clinton, has teared up.
Furthermore, experts agree that Sept. 11 made weeping in public earnest and unavoidable. Recall the always stoic Dan Rather of CBS breaking down at David Letterman's side.
If you look further into history, you'll find more examples of crying men, Lutz says. In the great debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln cried, he says, and democrat Stephen Douglas cried right back.
"To weep on the stump was considered a staple of the orator's art," Lutz says. "All the 19th-century American politicians wept."
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