I've Broken This Mortifying Office Taboo — & I Bet I'm Not Alone

Here’s an awkward piece of personal trivia: I’ve cried at every job I’ve had. When I was navigating an endless first-job search and grabbed a coffee with my internship supervisor, I soaked an unsuspecting chocolate croissant in tides of frustrated tears. Then there was that afternoon I had a low-key cubicle weep after jamming a printer with the universe’s stickiest mailing labels and was dressed down by the angry office manager. Even in my current role, I’ve furtively re-applied a few swipes of waterproof mascara on days when the dizzying pace of digital media catches me off guard. And each time, as I’ve waited for my face to lose its post-outburst splotches, I’ve wondered exactly why these emotional moments are considered so taboo. Isn’t it a universal truth that you just can’t cry at work?
Advertisement
Sure, openly sobbing to colleagues on a regular basis doesn’t exactly look professional. Yet, offices are environments defined by competition and conflict. Considering the stakes — both your own success and the success of your employer — it’s bizarre to me that we’ve cast the occasional breakdown as the Kleenex-white albatross of corporate culture.
If bawling is the ultimate workplace taboo, it’s also a viscerally gendered one. While red-faced man-babies from Andy Bernard to Donald Trump justify their tantrums as the logical side-effect of their desire for power, crying is construed as the ultimate sign of weakness. Who could forget Stanley Tucci’s pitiless verdict in The Devil Wears Prada when Anne Hathaway ducks into his studio for some real talk about Miranda Priestly? “Oh Andy, you are not trying; you are whining,” he scolds. “Man up,” he’s essentially saying, because, office politics are ruled by the Trumps and the Bernards, and women need to leave their so-called “feminine” feelings at the turnstile.
Naturally, it would be impossible to meet our daily responsibilities if — most of the time — we weren’t doing our best to stay level-headed and composed. But there’s value in pushing back against this idea that work doesn't collide, often painfully, with a deeper desire for recognition or fulfillment. After all, how could a career not be inherently caught up in the uneven, fragile nest of personality? It's literally the thing we spend the most time doing. And as we willingly volunteer for stretch assignments, competing with co-workers to translate project wins into salary bumps, it's hard to imagine that "professional" could ever really mean "unemotional." In the end, isn't there a jagged grain of truth in Michael Scott's claim that "business is always personal"?
Advertisement
At the risk of soaring too close to the blissed-out platitudes of a Pinterest quotes board, or the equally vacuous rhetoric of Ivanka Trump's awe-inspiringly tone-deaf Women Who Work, I've often struggled to untangle my job from my sense of identity. I’m betting I’m not alone. Millennials were brought up aspiring to knit their passions to their paychecks — the dream of professional freedom dashed by 2008's financial crisis. We're grappling with the overwhelming expectation to, as one syrupy corner of the Internet gushes, "be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire" while also making rent. Frankly, my eyes get a little watery just thinking about it. So if crying at work is inevitable — yet taboo — what is an ambitious young woman to do to recover after one of these embarrassing incidents?
My usual routine after an in-office meltdown is to adjust my contacts, down a massive iced-coffee, and pretend it never happened (until it happens again) — clearly, I’m no expert on the correct professional response. So I spoke with certified personal finance coach and founder of the Fiscal Femme, Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, to see if she had any tips for chipping away at the stigma. "It's so counterintuitive, but telling yourself not to cry usually ends up making you cry more," she says. "You're using all your energy to hold it together, trying to defuse an awkward situation, but there's so much built-up pressure that the tears will almost inevitably come. If emotional displays were more accepted, and you could relax a little, they might actually happen less."
Advertisement
Taking some of the stress off can also create an opportunity for deepening the communication with your supervisor or colleagues. By letting go of the weird shame woven into the situation, you'll remember that you still have the power to shape the dialogue, tissues in hand. "Women tend to over-apologize, especially at work. If you do end up getting upset, it can be helpful to excuse yourself from the situation, take a minute to get it together, and come back ready to have a more composed exchange. Don't feel like you have to fall down the rabbit hole of saying 'sorry' over and over again,” Gerstley advises. "Our feelings are invested in our careers, and having a human moment with someone in the office can be spun as a positive."
Studies have confirmed that women's workplace breakdowns often encapsulate these complex emotional layers, topped-off by the fresh humiliation of having actually let them out as a cry. Anger or frustration — instincts comfortably displayed by men literally anywhere — have always seemed off-limits to professional women striving for respect in corporate arenas. As Gerstley notes, the struggle to compress those feelings only amplifies our sense of panic, twisting already fraught encounters into a so-called “out-of-control,” tear-soaked display.
Except maybe there’s some power in crying. I've definitely found that breaking the taboo can lead to greater clarity with colleagues. I've noticed how tears have helped knead out a disconnection or problem that might otherwise have gone unresolved. Not to say that I'm sure I'll ever fully get over the electric urge to hide those emotions, much less overcome the reflex to apologize for them. But being occasionally vulnerable has reminded me of the empathy buried in the corporate world — and, in its disarming way, located new paths for collaboration and honesty. Rather than succumbing to its stifling mortification, I’m hoping to recognize, if not celebrate, the rare office cry as a hidden chance for greater candor — the little flicker of understanding between tired, stressed-out coworkers that Andy Sacks was asking for.
No lie: My self-deprecating texts to friends about the day's office weep will probably never contain praise hands emojis. But I’m hanging onto the essential belief that my work is worthy of a few tears. For now, I'll leave the Kleenex nearby.
Related Video: