Around this time of year (midterms, advising) students often come to me crying about being overwhelmed or some perceived unfairness. I haven’t quite figured out a technique for how to respond to the “criers.” I’ve tried different responses, including telling the student that it’s okay to cry and offering tissues, pretending that I don’t notice the tears streaming down their face, or, if they are particularly embarrassed, reassuring them that it’s okay to express their emotions in that way. I wonder, though, how others would handle episodes like these years later? Workplace crying oftentimes is treated as excessively emotional and completely inappropriate in professional settings.
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recounted her experience crying in front of a supervisor and offers that it ended up being an important opportunity for connection. However, in a patriarchal culture, many see this as a “female” problem. In my own interactions, it does seem that more young women end up crying in my office than young men. Having said that, female students greatly outnumber their male counterparts in my school, so my impression may be skewed. Given that my school serves a population that largely does not conform to traditional gender roles, it’s surprising to see the crying divide across sexes so clearly.
In my own observations beyond my students, I have seen many female colleagues cry in my office over a workplace or personal issue, but I can think of only one instance witnessing a male colleague cry. I myself have cried on several occasions. Most of the time I was met with empathy, but during one encounter, a colleague responded to my display with disgust. Later, I found out through conversations with others that I was perceived as weak and my crying was inappropriate.
After finding this out, I was embarrassed but also angry. Why should I be expected to project a masculine stance in the workplace? My crying was perceived as vulnerable because my colleague assumed I was sad, when in fact my crying (welling tears, not wailing) was an expression of my anger and frustration. If I instead had raised my voice or taken on a threatening posture, I would have been met with a different reaction (“bitchy,” perhaps; another way to dismiss women who refuse to conform to patriarchal gender roles).
An article in the Huffington Post features women in positions of power who talk about crying at work. Some of the women say they think crying distracts from their power and presence at work, while others acknowledge that, at times, crying can be appropriate. However, is this all socially constructed? Do we see crying simply as weak while other emotions (like anger) are considered more acceptable in a “competitive” environment? When my own children cry, I never tell them to stop. I think they should be allowed to express their emotions and learn how to work through them, but how long will they have until they are judged for crying? How do you treat your crying students, colleagues, or your own tears at work?
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