When a good cry just doesn't work

By Lorna Collier
Special to the Tribune

October 6, 2004

You're in an important staff meeting when suddenly your boss begins to criticize your work, in front of your co-workers, your subordinates, other superiors, everybody. You want to defend yourself, but to your horror, you feel your eyes filling with tears.

Crying at work isn't something any woman wants to do, especially in front of men, who too often view tears as a sign of weakness and reinforcement of stereotypes that women are "too emotional."

Repeat crying on the job "does affect your credibility and reputation," says Alexandra Levit, 28, a Chicago marketing consultant, who teaches strategies for avoiding tears in the workplace in her book, "They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World" (CareerPress).

Levit learned firsthand how crying on the job can hurt a career after weeping several times during her first job out of college, at a high-stress public relations firm in New York City. Levit cried twice in front of a critical boss and later was passed over for promotion. She left the firm, but the experience helped her come up with techniques to forestall public tears.

For many women, though, frustration, stress, personal problems and hormonal changes caused by pregnancy, menstruation or menopause can result in unwanted tears that for some are unavoidable.

Certain women, for unknown reasons, cry more easily and often than other people, says tear researcher William H. Frey II, a professor of pharmaceutics in the neurology department at the University of Minnesota and director of the Alzheimer's Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

In general, women cry four times as often as men, says Frey--an average of 5.3 times per month compared with 1.4 for men, with some women crying nearly every day and about 6 percent saying they never cry (compared with 50 percent of men who say they never cry).

Frey's research has shown that emotional tears are chemically different from tears caused by irritants, such as chopping onions, and contain higher concentrations of protein.

"Crying is an excretory process," he says, theorizing that crying "evolved as an adaptive response to emotional stress. It increases our survival by reducing the harmful effect of stress on the body."

Women also are biologically set up to cry more visibly and more often than men, he says; 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," Frey says. Men may get misty-eyed, but teardrops don't give them away. With women, on the other hand, almost every crying episode involves runaway tears, he says.

Hormones also likely play a part in women being more tear-prone, Frey says. Not only do tear glands contain both prolactin (a female hormone) and testosterone, but there is also evidence women cry more at different points in their menstrual cycles, with more frequent tears three to five days before onset of menstruation and also at ovulation.

Cultural more than biological

Tom Lutz, an English professor at the University of Iowa and author of "Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears" (W.W. Norton & Co.), says if women cry more than men, it is due mostly to social conditioning.

"I think the cultural forces at work are much more powerful than the biological ones," Lutz says. Social rules govern which group can cry for what reason, he says, so that in the U.S., "men are expected to cry more often from pride, for instance, than women are, but men are never supposed to cry from frustration, while women can."

Tears are often a "sign of submission," Lutz notes. "Since women are conditioned to be more subservient than men, they are `allowed' to cry more often."

As females become less subservient, Lutz believes, the frequency of female crying changes. To stop unwanted tears, Lutz says women should "refuse to accept the social role that makes crying appropriate."

To avoid tears, Frey says there are no magic drops or pills you can take.

"Women can try doing the things men do," he says. "You can think about something else, you can tune out. You can try biting your lip, causing pain. I'm not sure any of these things are going to actually work. Often by the time people realize they are going to cry, it's too late. They're already upset."

Rebecca Kiki Weingarten, a life coach and former teacher in New York City, says she often counsels businesswomen on ways to prevent tears, and has successfully used some of the strategies herself.

"For most of my professional life, I really struggled with this," says Weingarten, a self-described "crier" who hasn't had a problem with workplace tears for the past year or so.

Weingarten's strategies--which are similar to Levit's--involve mentally preparing for potential tear-producing encounters, role-playing and coming up with lines that women can practice saying in stress situations.

Why not just give in to tears, if they help ease stress?

Weingarten says sometimes women do need to break away for a private cry in the bathroom, and agrees that "crying is a great healthy thing," but warns that "in the workplace it can do damage."

Other workplace consultants agree.

"It's all about the perception of power," says Stephen Fairley, a business coach in Chicago.

"Unfortunately, males very much have a stereotypical pejorative attitude toward crying, where people who cry are seen as weak. You're not going to change the typical male's mind. They may say otherwise, but if truth be told, they'll see it as a negative."

A frequent issue

Andrea Kay, Cincinnati-based career counselor, says "you wouldn't believe how much this comes up with women. It's a big issue. It's a big fear."

While Kay sometimes cries with clients who are in difficult situations, she recognizes that for many women in the corporate world, "if you're in a situation with a client, it's crucial for you to maintain your cool and be in control. If you don't do that well, if you consistently don't stay in control and you cry in front of clients, that could be difficult."

For Dr. Patricia Raymond, a Chesapeake, Va., gastroenterologist, tossing out the rules of the old boys' network and allowing her emotions--and tears--to show has not hurt her medical practice.

"I tried for years in medical training to be one of the boys and not share emotions with my patients diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. I was led astray."

Raymond now will hold hands with patients when giving bad news, often with tears in her eyes. "I'm not blubbering. They're not running down my face. I don't lose control and run out of the room. But allowing a few tears of sympathy to fall does not diminish my power as a physician."

Indeed, her tears might make her a more sought-after doctor, Raymond contends.

"Women physicians are in demand because we will cry," she says, noting that in this way medicine is "different from politics and different from business."

No matter the work environment, Frey hopes more women are able to find ways to integrate their emotions--and the tears that may accompany them--with their professions.

"As more women move into the work force, I hope in order to succeed that they don't have to become more like men," Frey says. "I don't think the workplace should be a sort of dehumanized environment where only cursing, swearing and yelling are approved, but someone with a few tears running down her check is a godawful thing."

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How to prevent, or hide, tears


Jut out your jaw. According to Philadelphia psychotherapist Larina Kase, "there is some evidence pushing your jaw forward interferes with the tearful response."

Use breathing exercises. For example, inhale while counting to six, hold for four counts, exhale for six. Try other counts if these don't work for you.

Chew gum or nibble on a snack. "It's physiologically quite difficult to cry when you are chewing something," Kase says.

Sipping water also can help.

Focus on something tangible outside yourself, such as a colorful poster or the aroma of your coffee.

Do something physical, such as climbing stairs or push-ups against the wall of your office. "This will burn off stress hormones and raise endorphin levels," says Debbie Mandel, a stress management expert, author and radio host in Lawrence, N.Y.

Use aromatherapy to calm yourself. Lavender and vanilla are common de-stressants, Mandel says.

Don't obsess on "not crying"--it might make it more likely to happen. If tears are coming, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or say you have other business to attend to.

If you wind up having a good cry in the bathroom, here's what you can do to hide that fact: Dr. Thomas Bournias, an ophthalmologist with Northwestern University's Ophthalmic Institute, recommends using "Refresh Tears," which are lubricant eye drops with no preservatives to help redness and irritation. To counter eyelid swelling, use cold metal spoons. "Run spoons under cold water and hold them over your eyes for a couple of minutes," Bournias says. "Keep dipping them in cold water and putting them back on. This helps constrict vessels in the eyes and the swelling in the eyelids goes down."

Copyright © 2004, Lorna Collier


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