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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: Is it ok to cry at work?

So much depends on where you work, who’s doing the crying, and what the reasons are.

Ani Castillo

Dear Ellen,

Is it okay to cry at work?

Signed, J.

Dear J.,

Some etiquette rules are hard and fast, and easy to understand (though, admittedly, not always easy to follow). Being on time is polite, for example, while being late sends the rude message that you don’t respect the other person’s time. But even this simple rule is open to interpretation — arriving early and securing a good table for a business lunch is extremely considerate, whereas arriving early for a dinner party is a terrible faux pas.

At the other end of the etiquette spectrum is your crying-at-work question. So much depends on where you work, who’s doing the crying, and what the reasons are.

Welling up with sympathy for a co-worker who’s just been fired is entirely appropriate. Bawling with rage and hurling obscene threats at your boss because you have just been fired is less appropriate.

In between those two extremes, today’s work landscape is slowly becoming more open to emotional displays. Even the Harvard Business School allows for workplace blubbering every now and then — as long as the crier attributes their outburst to passionate investment in their job. Crying because you’re overdrawn at the bank, or your last Tinder date didn’t call you back, or someone stole your yogurt from the company fridge, is not recommended.

There’s more latitude in creative jobs. Crying at work is actually required if you work for someone like writer/director Jill Soloway (Transparent, I Love Dick), who has famously declared that not only can you cry at work, you must: “On my set I say if you can’t cry, you’re a liability. If you can’t cry you can’t feel and if you can’t feel you better not be holding my camera for me.”

Once you’ve worked out your own workplace’s tolerance for tears, you can work out the etiquette. Here are my guidelines: If a co-worker is suffering personal distress or tragedy, I set my work aside and give the person my full attention and sympathy. If the co-worker is a ninny who regularly cries over spilt milk (or stolen yogurt), I ignore and avoid them. If the co-worker is wailing with job frustrations, I offer a polite nod of acknowledgement and leave them to it.

If you’re the one doing the crying, whether it’s personal or professional, weep away as discreetly as you can, don’t apologize (which forces others to sympathize), then wipe your nose and get back to work.

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