By Anna Nelson • February 09, 2008•Other Issues
In previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I outlined eight ways to avoid crying at work. The techniques were mainly preventive, although some of them could also be used to hurry past tears after you've started crying. (In such situations, for instance, it might still help to take a step back or focus on your breathing.)
My last four tips are different. They won't help you completely avoid crying. These are last resorts for handling tears that come out despite your best efforts.
Different situations call for different techniques. An explanation of when, how and why each technique works (or doesn't) follows after the jump...
Earlier, I urged you to "take a step back" to avoid tears. When that's not possible, you might need to do the exact opposite: forge boldly ahead. If you do not have a chance to collect yourself or draw on a technique such as focused breathing or distracting yourself with pain, experts advise you to talk through the tears. "Most tears come up when we’re desperately trying to prevent them from happening. Keep talking as best as you can. You’ll probably find that your tears will diminish after a few seconds." [Source.] As I mentioned in Part 1, human beings are simply unable to experience emotions at their highest level of intensity for very long. Just bulldoze past the moment as quickly as you can, and your feeling of distress will ease. Guaranteed.10. Just ignore it.
Discussing how Hillary Clinton got emotional before the New Hampshire presidential primary, several Ms. JD readers agreed that the best thing to do is "just ignore it." Peg said, "Don't comment on it. Ignore the incident and hope people forget." In the short run, drawing attention to tears may make your audiences even more uncomfortable. They may feel obligated to console you or otherwise respond. If you ignore the tears, they can, too. In the long run, drawing attention to tears may more firmly impress negative incidents in the minds of your audience. That's bad for your career.
If the tears are coming and it doesn't feel like something you can completely ignore, you might breeze past the incident with a comment like "excuse me, my contact lens is irritated" or "do your allergies give you trouble this time of year, too?" I do have seasonal allergies and wear contacts, so trust me that these things can make you tear up! Personally, however, telling even a white lie makes me uncomfortable. So if you do wear contacts or suffer allergies, let me point out that you can simply state these facts (perhaps with an apologetic shrug), leaving your audience to infer them as the cause of your watering eyes. You don't need to actually say anything false. You could also say something like "I think there's something in my eye." That is so cliched that nobody's probably going to believe you (but that could happen with any of these statements). Still, the statement gives your audience an "out" to move past your tears a little more comfortably.
Sometimes the best way to diffuse your anxiety is to speak it aloud. It takes a kind of courage to look someone square in the eye and calmly explain, "I am embarassed that I've teared up. I find it difficult to discuss [the subject at hand]. Thank you for speaking with me." Then just proceed with the discussion. Don't spend a lot of time explaining, or it will feel like you're fishing for sympathy or being manipulative. Just a few short sentences--you may want to rehearse them, think through the exact words you'd want to say if such a situation ever arose. That way you can be concise and not ramble out of nervousness. Cross your fingers that you will never need to directly acknowledge your own tears, but be prepared.
If you have trouble taking the emotional temperature of your audience, this tip may not be for you. It is not something to be used often, if ever. But I've been in one or two situations where this was probably the best thing to do, so I did it. I think it preserved two mentoring relationships which otherwise could have melted down. Now, I'm not a lawyer yet. I'm still a law student. Some of my colleagues at Ms. JD will surely disagree with this tip, because some lawyers will always think less of people who cry. But the honest and direct approach has carried me, intact, through some pretty competitive environments. If you've read this far into my post, you probably don't care about credentials. But if it makes a difference: I've worked or studied at the DOJ, the White House, Yale Law, Harvard, and half a dozen editorial and staff positions with public and private corporations. As hard as I try not to, occasionally I tear up. But I'm still here.
In a previous discussion about showing emotion at work, several Ms. JD readers agreed that anger is stereotypically masculine, tears are stereotypically feminine, and (perhaps not coincidentally) anger is more professional than tears.
[It might be true] that anger is more professional than tears, regardless of its gendered origins. But it at least gives one pause, I think, to wonder if it is really a necessary reality. Why are public tears taboo? Men don't like them. Women don't like them either, necessarily, but they've only been allowed to have any input on it whatsoever for a few decades. I can imagine a world where tears are as common as laughter, where they are not seen as the ultimate symbol of weakness, but just as a normal expression of sadness or disappointment the same as yelling is a sign of frustration.
I can imagine that world, too. It would be an interesting--and probably better--place. But it's not where we work now, so I hope my twelve tips for avoiding tears are of help to you. If you have other tricks to keep yourself from crying, please add them in the comments!