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Crying Out Loud

Vivia Chen

January 5, 2011

Crying_boehner I've been looking for an excuse to write about crying on the job for some time. But who knew that the topic would land on my lap in the form of John Boehner, our new speaker of the House of Representatives?

As you probably know, the Ohio Republican cries as easily as a toddler lost in the mall. In fact, he teared up recently on 60 Minutes--several times. (At one point, he told interviewer Leslie Stahl that he could no longer visit schools because it made him a crying mess to see children and think about their pursuit of the American Dream.)

Boehner cried--and cries--and still made it to a top position. But can you? The New York Times columnist Gail Collins thinks not--especially if you are a woman striving for credibility:

[Nancy] Pelosi, of course, does not cry in public. We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she, or any female lawmaker, broke into loud, nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview.


O.K., moving forward.

And what about a sobbing lawyer or banker? Don't even think about it, says a post on the Harvard Business Review. Boehner can get away with it--and even garner brownie points for crying--but not you, says HBR: "There are three key differences between John Boehner and the rest of us above-average professionals looking to progress in our careers: first, he's the boss, second he's not crying about workplace issues, and third, he's old (or older, depending on where you sit)." To that, I'd add that there's something oddly endearing about a hardcore conservative showing his soft side.

The unwritten corporate rule is quite simple, reminds HBR: "It is never okay to cry in your office, with your colleagues, or, god forbid, in front of your boss." Though everyone gets upset and is entitled to a meltdown, says HBR, "you're just not entitled to lose it in front of others."

So if you feel those tears coming on, HBR advises that you either:

Politely excuse yourself and then get the hell out of your office. Say something like, "I need to excuse myself for a few minutes and get some air."  ... And then run, don't walk, to the nearest deli or the bathroom stall downstairs.

If you can't keep it together to excuse yourself, then simply exit the building quickly and worry about explaining later.

Yes, I agree it's unprofessional and uncool to cry in the office. But let's not be totally rigid about it. I also think there are times when bursting into tears could help drive home a point.

From what I've seen, crying works best in situations involving bullies. (Not to stereotype, but I'm assuming in these situations that it's the woman who's driven to tears.) Sometimes the only way to stop a bully dead in his tracks is with an avalanche of uncontrollable tears. It shocks the bully--albeit temporarily--into behaving better. Moreover, you don't lose credibility by breaking down in front of a bully, because the sympathy is on your side. If anything, the bully is usually the one who's embarrassed because his brutish behavior precipitated the outburst.

So who not to cry in front of? Pretty much everyone else. It's certainly ill-advised to make a scene in front of a popular boss or colleague. Also, there's not much to gain from showing your vulnerability in front of someone who's cold and calculating. So pick your target carefully.

And what about men who cry in the office--well, I won't go there for now.

What do you think of crying in the office? Is it a career-killer, or can it make a bad situation better?


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I don't think that it's a good idea to cry in the office and I think that it's equally bad for both sexes.

No matter how close one is to one's employer and no matter how much the workplace feels like a family, it is not a family. Your family can't fire you, promote you or give you a raise.

Although crying is human, it can be viewed, by some, as a sign of weakness and/or vulnerability. We are supposed to exhibit our strengths in an office setting and play down our weaknesses.

I agree that if one feels tears coming on, one should politely remove oneself from the room until one's emotions are under control.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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