The person who taught me that it might be OK to cry at work was a co-worker I will call Peg.  I admired Peg tremendously.  She was always calm in chaos and seemed unflappable, no matter what happened.  Peg was the type of person who, when I complimented an outfit, laughed and said, “Thanks, this was Plan B.  My toddler projectile vomited all over the first choice.”  Peg was the person who, when you arrived at the office at 8:15 to discover there were people in the lobby for an 8:30 meeting that nobody had told you about, would effortlessly spirit them into the nicest conference room, bring them coffee, and even remember which person preferred a diet soda, all while you were cursing as you scrambled to put words on some PowerPoint slides so that you could seem like you were prepared.

One day, when I found unflappable Peg crying in the ladies’ room, I figured that something tragic must have happened, like a death in the family.  When I asked what was wrong, she said matter-of-factly, “Nothing really.  I cry when I’m angry.  The stupid photocopier kept jamming and it made me so mad, I had to come in here and cry a little bit.  I’m getting over it now.”

Her comment stuck with me: “I cry when I’m angry.”  I am also an angry crier, but I did not realize it until she said those words.  I remembered a time when a former boss ambushed me into having a sensitive conversation that I was not prepared to have. There was some friction on our team at the time, and I had some ideas on how to improve the frayed relationships.  It was a difficult topic for me, and I had not yet had time to rehearse the dialog until the emotion drained out of it.  Almost immediately after I started talking, I started to choke up and the tears came.  Still, I managed to get out the message, which was what I believed to be a thoughtful, constructive action that our team could take to work better together.

The boss came unglued.   He immediately got defensive, changed the subject, and needless to say the issue of our team dynamic was not solved.  At the time, I could only imagine that my crying in his office had somehow transformed me in the boss’ mind into a petulant child, or an emotional spouse, or an irrational crazy person. Maybe the message simply failed to resonate as valid feedback because it was delivered through tears.  I now realize that it was not the boss’ fault; neither of us had been equipped to understand my angry tears, let alone process this stereotypically female reaction in a professional way.

Like me before Peg’s epiphany, we recognize crying as a signal of grief, emotion, and even joy, but not anger.  We hide tears at work behind closed doors to avoid upsetting others, or maybe we learn to emote in a way that we think is more office-appropriate, to avoid appearing weak or upsetting those around us.  After all, men’s anger can tend to manifest itself in ways that are easily recognized:  Raised voices, bold gestures, cursing.  I once had an angry colleague who kicked a hole in the wall of his office.  Had Peg raised her voice at the uncooperative photocopier, any observer would have recognized her “anger-appropriate” reaction for what it was.  She would not have felt the need to hide in the ladies’ room to spare others the discomfort of watching her process her anger by crying.

We do not receive a lot of training or guidance on how to deal with tears at work.  What could we do differently?  The next time you encounter a colleague crying in the office, please try not to dismiss the person as emotional, sad, or hormonal.  What should you do?

Seeing someone cry can be uncomfortable and one way to help deal with your reaction is to focus on understanding the other person. It is perfectly acceptable to ask whether anything is wrong.  It is also perfectly acceptable, especially if the tears begin during a situation with the potential for an angry reaction, to ask whether you said or did something to make the person angry.  You might be surprised by the answer.  Either way, offering up a box of tissues is always appreciated.