Hillary did it. But I still can’t cry in the office

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I’m weighing in late on the whole Hillary Clinton tearing up in New Hampshire thing because the brouhaha just dumbfounded me. (Read this analysis by Joe Klein for the deets.) Here she is, the first viable woman presidential candidate, in the thick of a brutal campaign that so far had showed few dividends, getting pummeled from all sides on everything from her legislative record to her hair. And it’s not like her personal life’s been a cake walk. Her husband famously cheated on her numerous times, and she famously and unwittingly defended his lies.

Are you kidding me? Which of us, ladies, could withstand that kind of hell on earth—and still face the public every minute of every day? The only way I could cope would be to make like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, putting aside five minutes a day for a violent sob. Except I’d probably find myself losing control over where and when the waterworks would appear.

Here’s how I saw it. Hillary Clinton is asked an unexpectedly tender question by a woman voter at one of her campaign stops. Suddenly, all the exhaustion and bitterness and desperate passion comes rushing up and the emotion cracks through her normally adamantine exterior. She tears up. She responds in a slightly quavering voice. Then as quickly as they appeared, the glistening in her eyes dries and disappears.

Which of you has not cried in the office? I’m guilty. In my 20s, I found that confrontational meetings with authority figures might bring some uncomfortable and unwanted physical responses, including flushed cheeks and wet eyes. It would horrify me, as I associated tears in the workplace with weakness, and I developed tricks to hide or avoid it. I’d blink a lot at first; I’d take deep breaths; I’d smile (that one really works, for some reason).

Peggy Klaus, an executive coach and author of BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It (2004) and the upcoming The Hard Truth About Soft Skills, says it’s just as we feared: getting overly emotional on the job sets women back. (Oddly enough, it’s now generally accepted conventional wisdom that the tears actually helped Hillary appear more human.) Crying in the office by women, says Klaus,

• derails discussions;
• makes co-workers and bosses feel very uncomfortable;
• makes male colleagues think you’re not tough enough;
• makes female co-workers perceive tears as manipulation to get what you want.

Yet it’s true that crying comes more easily to women, she says. She cites the work of one of the world’s few tear researchers, biochemist William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, who found that women on average cry four times more a month than men (5.3 times versus 1.4 times). Klaus finds that the women she coaches are more likely than their male colleagues to “feel personally assaulted when their performance or ideas are criticized.”

It has to do with how we women handle conflict. Research by Boston University psychologist Dr. Leslie Brody shows that men turn feelings of anger against others, while women turn their feelings against themselves.

Despite Hillary’s example, I don’t think the stigma against emotion in the office is changing anytime soon. Contrary to Frey’s research, I can’t say I know any working woman who says she cries five times a month. Maybe that’s not a healthy thing; maybe we women are learning to bottle our emotions to thrive in a man’s world. Or maybe we’re just learning to compartmentalize. I can’t remember the last time I teared up at the office. But give me a cheaply manipulative scene in Grey’s Anatomy involving gravely injured dads winking good-bye to their little daughters, and I’m a sniveling mess.

If and when Hillary makes it into the Oval Office, I imagine the world will be watching for any signs of womanly (read: unseemly) emotion. Me, I think it would be a welcome change. How can a person be so close to so many of the world’s tragedies and not feel a swell of emotion once in a while? So go ahead, Hillary. Cry. We’ve got plenty of Kleenex.