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Dealing with tears at work

  • Story Highlights
  • Crying is an emotional expression like laughter or anger, experts say
  • Expert: Be careful you're crying at an appropriate time and place
  • "It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being human," psychologist says
  • Only you can decide what damage crying would do to your career, experts say
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By Anthony Balderrama writer
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Experts disagree on whether crying at the office is OK.

Experts disagree on whether crying at the office is OK.

In a Q-and-A session with voters the day before a 2008 presidential primary, former White House-hopeful Hillary Clinton got a little choked up during her response to a question.

She didn't bawl or wail or even leave the stage to regroup in private. Her eyes watered, she continued to answer the question, and then she moved on to another topic. She handily won the primary the next day.

TV pundits and bloggers couldn't stop talking about her. Not her politics but her "show of emotion." They wondered how people would respond: Was it the end of her campaign? Was it a setback for women? Was it staged to get attention?

Her response, for what it's worth, was that her desire to improve the country kept her going during the longest presidential primary campaign in the history of the United States. Although few high profile politicians shed tears on the campaign trail, did that moment really merit all the hoopla?

Crying isn't just any emotion

When it comes to crying on the job, we are not logical beings. Peruse the articles about Clinton's tears and you'll see "emotional" appear over and over again.

Is exhaustion any more emotional than joy or anger? Do we call co-workers who laugh a lot emotional? How about screaming bosses?

Yet, as annoying as your cubicle neighbor's incessant cackling might be, it probably doesn't earn him an unfavorable reputation with his peers. If he cried on a regular basis, he might not fare so well, a fact that bothers some professionals.

"Saying that crying is inappropriate is like saying that having emotions is inappropriate," says Laurent Duperval, communications coach and consultant. "Crying is the expression of an emotion, just like any other, except that it has negative stigma associated with it."

The right time and place

Don't assume, however, that tears are always acceptable. Just like any other show of emotion, crying has an appropriate time and place. You wouldn't laugh during a conference where the boss says quarterly earnings are at an all-time low but you would laugh if the boss told a funny (or at least he thinks it's funny) joke.

"It generally depends on how and why it happened. If it is a recurring event, if it is a tactic that is used to get one's way, yes that can damage your career because eventually people will catch on," Duperval says. "If the crying is accompanied with a tantrum or with violence, it is almost always inappropriate."

Perhaps the only instance where crying is widely acceptable is when receiving bad news, such as the death of someone you know. You're not a robot, after all. Organizational psychologist Marcia Reynolds agrees.

"Though I don't think anyone should cry on purpose, a spontaneous cry is only damaging to the person who feels they are weak because they are crying," she says. "It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being human."

As in most work situations, co-workers and bosses expect you to be professional. If you cry when your boss reprimands you or gives you a negative review, you're probably not earning the best reputation.

The gender factor

When you discuss tears in the office, you can't ignore the role sexism -- both past and present -- plays. If a woman cries at work, misogynists are ready to label her as weak -- proof of women as the fairer sex.

Other co-workers are put in the awkward position of not wanting to appear too touchy and still not come off as too cold. For this reason, not everyone sees crying as just any regular act.

"It is unprofessional behavior to cry in the office," says Sandy Dumont, an image consultant for the Image Architect. "This is particularly true if you are a woman, because it causes men to feel helpless to fix the situation, as well as possible guilt at having upset you."

While being a woman complicates an already difficult situation, you can't always control your tears, just as you can't always silence laughter or quell your anger -- regardless of your gender.

And with conflicting opinions on the acceptance of workplace emotions, you can't definitively say there is a right or wrong answer. The only constant is that you know yourself and your work environment better than anybody else, so only you can decide what damage crying can cause your career, if any.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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