Cheers for tears

Why women should feel free to cry in the workplace -- and anywhere else they damn well please.

Published October 18, 2005 11:30AM (EDT)

When I feel the urge to cry, I go with it. I don't care who's around. And I do it even though it makes me look terrible. My nose swells and lights up, my eyes shrink to mean little slits, my mascara runs. So be it. When I'm crying, as much as when I'm laughing, I feel completely alive. It works for me. As a writer, the test of my best work is whether it does more than simply stimulate thought -- it must also provoke emotion. As a mother, I've noticed that my tears can quell the intense rivalry between my two sons; they quickly join forces to comfort me.

Plus, I love the drama.

Two recent articles exploring women's supposed emotionality in the workplace made me think about my own tendency to tear up. In the New York Times, Martha Stewart and other female honchos say that women who want to succeed in business must not weep, period. It's a remnant of advice from the era when women felt they had to imitate the dress and behavior of men in order to succeed. And a number of women executives in the article attest to the fact that, regardless of a female's biological predisposition to cry, stoicism is essential to her credibility as a leader.

A cover story in Newsweek on "Women's Leadership" takes a polar tack. There, successful women from politics, science, media and business expound on the unique emotive capacities that women bring to their management style. Unlike the women in the Times story, the women in Newsweek share a sensitivity to work-life balance issues, to building a sense of community at the office, and a keen, unapologetic recognition of the obstacles to advancement women continue to face.

It seems that when it comes to assessing whether women's emotions are a hindrance or, simply, a difference, we are still as divided as Janus.

I discovered early on that crying was controversial. "People will think you're weak," my older sister said, when I came home from a schoolyard fight in tears. "People will think you're unstable," I was told as a summer associate in a big city law firm, when I went crying to a female lawyer after a senior partner obliterated one of my memos. "People will think you're unhappy," my mother warned when I cried at my son's brilliant performance as Charlie Brown in the kindergarten play.

Often I've been cautioned that emotions make people uncomfortable. As a black woman, I am also aware that my crying jags might fulfill a stereotype: that all black women are prone to fly off the handle, to be illogical, perhaps uncontrollable. I remember, after the O.J. Simpson verdict, how the exultation of many blacks was seen by some as a collective intellectual failure to understand the legal issues of the case. Emotions can be used against you, rendering you either too human, or less than human. And yet, yielding to the tornado of feeling that whirls inside me at times is irresistibly cathartic, and ultimately empowering. Public tears feel liberating, an act of defiance against those who would subdue me with decorum and logic.

My father was the first person to tell me it was OK to cry. Perhaps it was this early support from a male authority figure that has given me the license and the confidence to remain emotional. I was about 7 when he caught me sobbing at the end of the film "Heidi," at the denouement, when Heidi's friend Clara tosses her crutches away and ambles across the Swiss mountaintop. My father took me on his lap and said, "Princess, never be ashamed to cry."

Of course, I was a girl. I never saw him cry, and I don't know that he ever said as much to my brother, but I doubt it. It's too bad because they both would have benefited if they'd had the freedom to let the tears flow.

I have become a crying booster. When I see my sons, or other boys, crying, I want to say, "That's right! Just do it! You da man!" If men and women became more comfortable with expressions of emotion, we could humanize the workplace, lead more fulfilling personal lives and welcome authentic compassion into political life.

The response to Katrina had me over the moon because it illustrates my point: Emotions, particularly when expressed by men, are powerful. Mayor Ray Nagin's expletives; Kanye West saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national television; NBA basketball star Stephon Marbury weeping uncontrollably at a press conference; the breakdown of Jefferson County Parish president Aaron Broussard, as he described the calls for help from a friend's mother who drowned in her nursing home. These incidents placed heartbreak on the political agenda. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's cool appraisal, "It's an emotional time," seemed a paternalistic understatement intended to dismiss these protests as uncontrolled ravings. But on display in the days after Katrina were unvarnished tears and genuine empathy, which eventually compelled action.

Tears teach. What stirs us to public emotion reveals our needs, reflects our values. It also asks others to evaluate what, if anything, they are doing to provoke our tears, to take responsibility for our feelings by trying to make things better. This is why emotions are politically incorrect; they impose on us burdensome questions: What have I done? What can I do? The images of men breaking down and speaking out after Katrina exemplified true compassion, not the propagandistic kind that is safely contained and manipulated with photo ops and false camaraderie. It was raw, it was real and it won the hearts and minds of the nation. Let's hope we haven't seen the last of it.

By Cecelie S. Berry

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