Several years ago, Dr. William Frey met with a team of doctors, scientists, and hospital administrators about plans to “head up a new department,” as he put it. Frey, who is now the director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., knew that the ambitious medical project required a lot of advance planning. “We’d scheduled this organizational meeting several weeks in advance and we each had agreed to do things to prepare for it,” he says. “I said I’d do X and Y, another physician said he’d do A, B, and C.” But when the group met, the second physician hadn’t done his homework. He tried to pass his unpreparedness off on a subordinate, and berated her in front of the entire committee even though she wasn’t to blame.
“He starts yelling at this woman administrator, saying how come you didn’t do this or that,” Frey recalls, “She was sitting at the table and she was wearing glasses, I remember. As he yelled at her, she didn’t say anything, but you could see these tears coming down her cheeks under her glasses.” As soon as the physician noticed the tears, he stopped. He apologized. He admitted the fault was his. Frey was fascinated. “Clearly these tears communicated something in that workplace situation very effectively,” he says.
Frey remembers the crying administrator so clearly because she was exhibiting something he’d spent years researching: why we cry. Although Frey is now known primarily for his Alzheimer’s work, his first high-profile research subject was the composition and purpose of human tears. Until the 1980s, when Frey published his findings on the topic—along with the 1985 book Crying: The Mystery of Tears, now out of print—scientists knew very little about our sobbing. If someone cried too much, too often, or in an inappropriate situation, he or she was just considered weak. This was a problem for many women who’d entered the workforce.
“When I started my first banking job [in 1977], I was explicitly told, don’t let them see you cry,” says Anne Kreamer, a former top media executive who is now the author of It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace. “Countless women I knew were told this, from doctors doing their internships to other women in business. You cannot show this side of yourself. It’ll be considered a weakness.” Back then, Kreamer and her peers were pushing against a glass ceiling significantly lower and thicker than the one today. They tried to conform to the dominant male-oriented work culture that had already been created (case in point: that brief but unfortunate fascination with shoulder pads), but sometimes they just couldn’t help it. They cried.
According to Frey’s research, adult women cry four times as often as men. But it’s not because we’re wimps or because we more clearly grasp the fragility of the human condition. (Or at least, I don’t.) The answer, as with everything, has to do with science.
Men’s and women’s tear ducts are anatomically different. Women also have higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which promotes lactation and has been associated with an increased tendency to cry. Prolactin levels also rise when a woman is menstruating, pregnant, or has recently given birth. Great.
Similarly, testosterone—of which men have more—has been associated with a decreased tendency to tear up. Different people have different prolactin and testosterone levels, which may partly explain why some people are self-described criers, why others can watch Old Yeller tear-free, and why my roommate cried at work last week over Buzzfeed’s “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” list.
“Those lists always get me, I have to keep walking away from my desk so I calm down,” my roommate told me. She agreed to be interviewed for this article but refused to let me print her full name in case someone Googles her and learns how sappy she is. So I’ll just call her by her nickname: Ol’ Weepy-Face. Just kidding, it’s Mazz.
Mazz works in the fashion industry in Manhattan and has cried so many times at work that she’s lost count. “It happens at least once a week,” she admits. Usually her tears are related to something she’s watched or read on the Internet, although breakups and personal drama have been past instigators as well. “I cry when I’m sad and I cry when I’m too happy—basically any emotional extreme and I’ll cry,” she explains. Sometimes she seeks privacy in the bathroom. Sometimes she’ll stay at her desk and hope no one notices. “Yeah, I silently weep to myself in the middle of the office,” she says. “No big deal.”
Despite her overactive tear ducts, Mazz says she’s only had two work-related cries in the six years she’s worked at her company. Once, after a testy client chewed her out, she cried in front of an art director. “I felt like such an idiot,” she says, “I thought he’d view me as weak. But in this weird way, I think it made him feel protective.”
I talked to several women who’ve cried at work, and all of them have stories similar to this. When Angela Rhodes worked as a technician at a medical research lab in California, she cried when a friend died and then later again when her program lost its funding. Rita Arens, senior editor of BlogHer.com, cried at work because she was scared of an upcoming surgical procedure. And in 1993, when Kreamer was working as a senior vice president at Nickelodeon, she had just solidified a high-profile home video deal with Sony when her boss, Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, screamed at her over the telephone in front of her employees. She cried. And then later wrote a book about it.
In all of these stories, the tears happened quickly and almost uncontrollably—a sudden release of emotion brought on by a high level of stress. As it turns out, this is one aspect of Frey’s work that still hasn’t been proven. In his original research, Frey theorized that a good cry helps us release stress, and he also proved that the chemical makeup of emotional tears differs from those caused by an irritation, such as when we chop onions.
We now know that stress-related hormones are present in tear ducts and in emotional tears, but, Frey says, “no one has conclusively proven that the act of crying is removing excess chemicals that have built up.”
But even if it hasn’t been scientifically proven, it’s still the dominant medical theory. And it just seems true. Most people feel calmer after they cry. In that sense, crying at the office can be a healthy thing. If you’re stressed, it may be a quicker and more effective release than if you try to suppress it or self-medicate with drinks after work. And for the administrator who cried in Frey’s meeting, her tears communicated her thoughts more effectively than words.
Thanks partly to the increased presence of women in the workforce and to a growing acceptance of psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, the social stigma against tears in the workplace has severely lessened over the years. At some companies, it’s disappeared completely. But crying at your desk is still a little embarrassing, and it often makes co-workers unsure how to react. Michelle Zuiderweg is a manager at a veterinary hospital in Oregon. She remembers a time when she fired an employee, and the woman just wouldn’t stop crying. “It went on for an uncomfortably long time,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do, so after a while I just turned my chair around and started working at my computer.”