Don’t Quit Yer Crying!

A few days ago, news of a “Cry Closet” installation at the University of Utah went viral. A senior year art student, Nemo Miller, built this stand-alone closet which allows students to spend a few minutes to let out the stress of college with a good, old-fashioned cry. The student said he would leave the closet up until the end of finals.

The online reaction was…well, pretty much exactly what one might imagine:


“The wimpification continues.”

“its [sic] society that has neutered boys…”

“No cry closets at work. Our colleges are poorly preparing them for reality.”

“Why don’t you just go drink…like normal college students?”

As a culture, we identify crying as a weakness, a failure, as feminine (re: NOT manly) and as evidence that a person can’t cope. In reality, the opposite is true.

Crying is a body’s normal, healthy reaction to a build up of stress and emotion (and not just negative emotion…that’s why we can cry when we are happy, too). Think of it as the body’s release valve. Here’s one of my favorite fun-facts: tears that we cry due to emotion versus tears we cry due to pain are chemically different. Emotional tears have increased levels of cortisol, more commonly known as the “stress hormone.” It’s also that nasty ingredient that causes everything from loss of memory function, to obesity, to attention deficits, to heart disease. Whether you are a man or a woman, relieving stress through tears is the quickest way to get back to healthier functioning during an intense period of work or school.

What is more distressing are the alternatives that are foisted as better than the water works:

  • “Toughing it out,” as opposed to crying out the cortisol, literally leaves a person stewing in their own stress hormone, making their job at hand much more difficult due to cortisol’s interference with memory and attention.
  • “Manning up,” calling someone a “wimp” or proclaiming “boys don’t cry” is merely a way to disenfranchise women and shame men into behaving within a narrow range of masculinity. It is less about what do to with hard emotions and more to do with maintaining social structures along gendered lines.
  • “Drink like a normal college student” or “deal with it like ‘Mad Men'” not only fails to negate stress, it worsens stress and diminishes physical health. Professions like law have skyrocketing rates of alcohol and other addictions. Related are rates of divorce, heart attacks, anxiety, increased absenteeism and more.

I am not saying we need to build cry closets in every school and office. Heck, in my ideal work-world, we could just plunk ourselves down and wring our a few tears–preferably with a trusted mentor or colleague to be a sounding board. We would all be a lot healthier and our work much better if we did.

Are there times when tears aren’t appropriate? Yes. I believe so. My litmus test is “who is this moment about?” I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to have hard, direct conversations with team members. I’ve had let employees go both because of job performance and general staffing cutbacks. I’ve also sat in an office with a team member who shares a personal pain that is impacting their work and they are distraught. And every single time, I’ve cried…afterward, alone or with a peer. Never in front of the person whose life I just impacted or whose private pain was shared with me. Why? Because this is about them and the tears THEY need to cry (whether they actually cry with me or not). My turn to cry comes later.

I want to hear from you. What is your office culture and/ or personal beliefs about crying in the workplace? Always? Sometimes? Never? 


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