When a woman cries at work….


Women who hate to shed workplace tears have good reason to rein them in. The immediate response among co-workers is not empathy but downright awkwardness. In fact, studies suggest if the apparent reason for the tears wouldn’t cause the average person to cry – if it falls short of a discussion about a death in the family or an immediate firing, for example – then the next predictable response of female onlookers is disdain. As for male witnesses, a new study from the Weismann institute of Science shows that when males witness female tears in the workplace, testosterone levels plummet and brain cells associated with sexual arousal hit the brakes.

Are women biologically wired to cry?

What do we mean by crying – tearing up or sobbing? When tears hit cheekbones, regardless of accompanying noises, it’s considered “crying”. Tear expert Neurologist William Frey noted that women cry four times as often as men — an average of 5.3 times per month compared with 1.4 for men. When it comes to “never crying”, only 6 percent of women make that claim, compared to 50 percent of men who claim to always be able to hold back tears.

Frey also found that female tear ducts are anatomically different from male tear ducts, resulting in a larger volume of tears. “When men cry, 73 percent of the time tears do not fall down their cheeks,” he noted; hence, men are very capable of masking their emotional duress. With women, on the other hand, almost every crying episode involves wet cheeks.

How to handle workplace tears

The reality for women is that workplace tears can derail careers, change company dynamics, and reinforce male-friendly company politics.

If crying is a first or a usual response to moderate stressors, face it, ladies, professional development may be in order. There are desensitization techniques and new coping strategies that can be learned. A heightened understanding of emotional triggers, new ways of reframing situations, better threat assessment techniques, and role playing exercises to help you retrain autonomic responses may lift your spirits as well as your professional outlook.

More often, however, it’s the rare occurrence and unexpected pounce that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. For example, you are blindsided or unable to respond verbally to a perceived assault, such as when a supervisor unfairly criticizes your work in a public setting. Before you can even think, the waterworks start. In that case, decide to fully address the situation at another time, when you are more able to control an emotional response, and just get through the moment as best you can.

If you do cry, add an assurance that you do care very much about the project and let that be your final word for the moment. It is not the time to defend yourself; tears paired with a defensive posture is too often interpreted as manipulative. Instead, wait until you calm down to press your case or respond.

And a final thought: crying is human. We all cry – even tough, strong male CEOs. Tears lower hormone levels and toxins and leave us more “clear headed.” The key to professional growth, however, is to shed those tears in private.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

, ,

6 Responses to When a woman cries at work….

  1. Rhonda Hilmershausen March 3, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Not sure how I feel about this. I have cried, publicly in my former workplace, because my female boss attacked my character and integrity. After being belittled and made to feel stupid, I could not just ‘get myself in check’ and walk away to address the issue at another time. I needed to defend myself and do not feel ashamed that tears accompanied that. My tears were not manipulation. They were anger fueled with frustration and hurt. I watched this happen to a male coworker who experienced the same thing with the same boss.

    Just giving my two cents from a woman who cried at work, but maybe the title should read, “When people cry at work; it happens and shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing.”

  2. Aimee March 3, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Even tough strong male CEOs cry? Oh my! – signed, a tough, strong female.

  3. Dan Gregory March 3, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    Also there could be a bit of education on these differences so that the responses of both men and women are better understood. That could create more empathy. Men could learn a thing or two about expressing emotions, and the cathartic effect of a good cry.

    I agree with Rhonda, “it happens.” I don’t see any reason that “no crying” should be the default environment.

  4. Melissa March 4, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    Yeah, this article makes me laugh. What is the point of it? When a woman cries at work…what? What should happen? What should we do? I see it’s in the tips and advice category of the blog…yet it contains no real tips or advice. In fact, it’s full of contradictions:

    At first we’re told there are good reasons to reign it in, but then told women are biologicially wired to cried and that crying is human and everyone does it–even men!

    Then, we’re told crying can derail careers (not quite sure how), but if we cry we should add assurance that it’s because we care deeply about a project.

    Then we’re told professional development is in order to deal with crying, but that more often crying happens when you’re blindsided by an event, which professional development can’t address.

    This article would’ve been much more helpful if it had gone into specific professional development techniques/strategies to apply if you’re a person that’s apt to cry over events you’re not blindsided by.

  5. Corey Campbell March 4, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    I’m confused at the direction of this article. Are we trying to create an environment of desensitized, emotionless workers? This natural human response to stressful situations shouldn’t have to be suppressed by anyone, man or woman. If a situation arises that causes someone to cry I think we need to take a step back and look at why these confrontations are occurring in the workplace, instead of focusing on the crying itself. Sacrificing emotions for potential professional development doesn’t add up in my mind.

  6. jodyglynnpatrick March 16, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

    I am so glad to read the comments! Thank you all. I can see a need for a follow-up column to take on some of the specific points raised from the generalized blog (all I have room to print weekly!). I agree with most of what readers say, in that dehumanizing a workforce or excusing rude “leadership” doesn’t lead to the most productive environment or one, frankly, I’d enjoy working in either. However, that said, the facts are that women are often discounted for crying — and yet seem biologically predisposed more often than male counterparts to cry. if the tears aren’t seen as legitimate given the circumstances, or if it is a default reaction to confrontation, then women may find their careers penalized.

    The point could have been highlighted (again, wish I had more room to write!) that the SOURCE of the conflict matters, of course! Bullying or rude behavior, etc. are more inexcusable, in my opinion — and obviously in your opinions — than tears. I would consider that to be a high stress situation and not a moderate-stress situation as described above. What I was referring to, to offer just one specific example, would be a corrective suggestion from a boss, or a co-worker offering a different opinion about the direction of a project, which leads to a tearful outburst.

    Again, thanks for commenting and reading the blog. I appreciate the feedback and the points you’ve raised or highlighted.

Leave a Comment