Last August, the New York Times published a long investigation into Amazon’s draconian white-collar office environment. The article, by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, painted a picture of a miserable office: people put on probation after they got sick, a working mother backstabbed via an anonymous feedback tool after she adjusted her work hours, a salesperson staying awake for four days straight to finish a project. One quotation, seemingly intended to distill Amazon’s toxic culture into a single sentence, was positioned as a pull quote near the top of the article: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” Bo Olson, who worked for two years as a book marketer for the e-commerce behemoth, told the Times reporters.
There were many things I found disturbing about the Times article—which Amazon challenged—but that quote wasn’t one of them. That’s because I’ve cried at my desk, more than once, even though I like my job. I’ve cried when I was going through a depressive episode, when I was stressed out about work projects that weren’t making as much progress as I wanted, when I was disappointed about losing out on a promotion. I’ve cried while meeting with my boss, who passed me a box of tissues and heard me out. I wouldn’t call myself a particularly emotional person in general, but I am invested in my work and sometimes get frustrated or upset, and sometimes when I get frustrated or upset I cry. If I saw every person I work with cry at his desk in a single week, I’d worry—but if I saw every person I worked with cry at his desk over two years, I’d chalk it up to the wear and tear of everyday life.
So I read with interest a recent Atlantic article called “Lean In to Crying at Work,” in which staff writer Olga Khazan argued that the stigma against crying at work is sexist. Women cry more often than men, both because of hormonal differences and because “[m]en have larger tear ducts than women, so more of their tears can well in their eyes without spilling out onto their cheeks,” Khazan explains. And women are perceived more negatively than men are for crying, even though crying is an involuntary physiological response for all of us except skilled actors. “Thus, crying joins the list of things—makeup, raising kids full-time—that people look down on simply because women do them more,” Khazan concludes.
Khazan makes the compelling argument that crying ought to be normalized at the office. “Not unlike other unpleasant things, crying happens,” she writes. “Men shouldn’t reap the unfair advantage of a mid-meeting misting, and women shouldn’t worry that on top of their own embarrassment, they’re being judged as manipulative and incompetent.”
I am on board, and—as my history of office crying demonstrates—doing my part. The question is: What does normalizing crying look like? Not punishing workplace weepers is only half of the solution. The other half is responding kindly and nonintrusively. But people cry for a variety of reasons, which call for different responses.
When I’ve cried during meetings with my boss—usually because I’ve felt hopeless or frustrated about whatever project we were discussing—I’ve been grateful when she’s just continued the conversation instead of drawing attention to my tears by asking if I was OK or insisting on taking a break. “I tear up easily in various situations, so I sympathize,” says Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner, who has witnessed my waterworks. “People are human, and sometimes they have human emotions at work.”
Someone crying silently at his or her desk may or may not want to talk about the reasons for the tears. Lily Newman, a Slate technology reporter, once took a break from work to rewatch part of a 2000 PBS documentary about a circus elephant that has to part ways with its longtime keeper when it enters an elephant sanctuary. This documentary, she emphasizes, is very sad. “Basically it’s like watching the opening of Up at your desk,” Newman says. Naturally, she started crying. “I was really afraid that someone would be like, ‘OMG are you OK?’ and I would have to be like, ‘Yeah, it’s just the elephants,’ ” she recalls. “So I sort of hunched way in toward my computer and then went to the bathroom as soon as I felt somewhat under control.”
My colleague Christina Cauterucci found herself crying just a few weeks into her first journalism job, after “a fancy Washington Post music critic named-and-shamed me on Twitter for a blog post I wrote that he didn’t like. … I teared up silently at my desk, removing tissue after tissue ever so slowly, so they wouldn’t make a sound and attract the attention of my nearby co-workers,” she wrote in an email. “By the time the same guy did it again a few months later, my skin had thickened enough to make me realize the problem was with him, not me.”
People with tears streaming down their faces might not want to get into conversations—but they might feel even worse knowing that everyone can see them crying but is choosing to ignore them. Newman suggests using a chat program to check in with a silently crying colleague in a low-pressure way. It’s easier to type than to talk when you’re crying, and pinging colleagues online will open the door for them to assure you everything’s fine, tell you that they don’t want to talk about it, or spill their guts. (If you’re not close enough with your colleagues that you chat with them regularly, then you’re probably not close enough to inquire into the reasons for their tears.)
Whether or not your crying colleague wants to talk, don’t make assumptions about his or her general emotional stability. Maybe something really heavy is going on, or maybe he’s just blowing off steam after a rough day. Unless you notice someone crying a lot or see other sustained changes in affect or motivation, assume she’s going to be OK. But even if someone is having bigger problems, you don’t need to walk on eggshells around him or her—just be nice. My friend Brandon cried frequently while he was going through “a really hard time in general” while he was working as an events coordinator. “The nicest things done for me during that time were when a co-worker told me I could take a walk or as much time as I needed and he’d cover for me. And he offered to buy me a beer after work,” said Brandon. “Another co-worker let me hang in his office for an hour. He made sure I knew that it was fine, I had nothing to be ashamed of, and that we all have days like that.”
Most importantly, don’t take it personally when other people cry at the office. Getting frustrated or defensive when someone’s eyes well up will only make things worse. Crying is not something that your co-workers are doing to you. It is something their bodies are doing to them. Have some compassion, and you’ll avoid making them feel worse. In fact, you might even end up making them feel better.
And what if you’re the crier yourself, and you think (or know) your co-workers will judge you for crying? If you’re alone at your desk and you want to avoid questions, hightail it to the bathroom, or follow this suggestion from one of my colleagues: “Put on your sunglasses, speed-walk out the door, and don’t return until you look normal.” If you’re in the middle of a conversation, explain that you’re stressed out but OK, and continue the conversation. If you act like it’s no big deal, they hopefully will follow your lead.
Of course, it’s possible they’ll act weird about it. But that’s their problem, not yours. If you want to convince people that crying is a normal human response to various stresses and not a sign that you’re incompetent and untrustworthy, you might have to put up with occasional awkwardness. But if the result is a workplace that’s fairer for women and people who are, through no fault of their own, physiologically predisposed to crying, a little awkwardness seems like a reasonable price to pay.