Crying at work
Updated: Jul 3, 2022
It has been hard for me to learn to cry. Not just to learn that I can cry, or that I should cry, but to actually cry. Yes, it is difficult for me to let the thing itself occur!
Perhaps this is because of how strongly I have been trained to hide from what I feel - in particular, to hide from feeling anything that makes my face leak. My body is that of a male, so I must have the emotional complexity of a rug.
Yet, it is good to cry. It helps us communicate, with ourselves and with others. It helps us be honest, and it helps us trust. We should let ourselves cry more...and not only in our free time, where we already cram all our sad movies and hard relationship conversations.
We should cry at work
Crying is, among other great things, a mechanism of stress release. Now, I'm no economist, but I think work stresses people out (someone fact check that). Seems like crying would be a great fit here, especially given its numerous communally positive traits and the fact that much work is communal (someone fact check that too).
So why do we instead lock our stress up at work without crying until, at the end of a long day and longer commute, we don't even remember why we feel so bad, but rather, simply, know that we do?
To ask this another way: Who determines that we should not cry at work?
Well, the answer is: People who want to remain professional. And here we encounter one of the more warped concepts of the capitalist age.
The terrible lie of professionalism
Professionalism is the idea that whole human beings can be sliced into pieces without killing them.
Maybe there's a piece of your brain that's great with spatiotemporal patterns, and this is also what makes you so emotionally susceptible to music and dance. Great, let's cut that piece out, and put it in the 'professionalism' slice!
No no, not the piece that likes music and dance - just the part that lets you enjoy them.
What's that? It's stupid to claim those pieces can be separated? Well, maybe, but capitalism doesn't care about being smart. It cares about the accumulation of capital.
This cuts right to the heart (pun intended) of who defines 'professionalism': It is defined by the bosses who employ workers, and as a concept it serves the single purpose of gatekeeping which workers are actually allowed to work. Gatekeeping criteria include everything from having a family, to having a particular skin tone or a certain set of sexual characteristics, to having a name that reminds some hiring committee of people with such traits.
One very popular gatekeeping criteria is how well a worker can hide most of their human feelings (sadness, anger, fear) from their boss, and how exaggeratedly well they can act out the rest (happiness, confidence, respect).
This criterion of emotion as gatekeeper is sufficiently entrenched in capitalist systems that it is a matter of common sense (can someone fact check whether 'common sense' is a meaningful concept) that a professional should not cry, unless that professional's explicit goal under employment contract is actually to cry (for instance, because they are an actor).
This conception neglects entirely that professionals are human beings.
In place of reality, professionalism pretends something that cannot exist: That a human who has evolved to enact social bonding and stress release over millions of years could possibly, within their single lifetime, undo those millions of years of social and psychological evolutionary pressure, and not suffer debilitating effects on their social lives and emotional stability.
If we do not eat, we break.
If we do not sleep, we break.
If we do not feel, we break.
Determining what is normal
Why should we not cry? Who determined this norm? Who enforces it?
Well, mostly, we enforce the norm against ourselves, at the behest of individuals who do not have our interests in mind even though they rely on our labor. Typically, these individuals cannot themselves enforce the norms that they wish to observe. Rather, they rely on internecine conflict between workers, who compete for the boss's favor through mutually escalating performances of professionalism.
This is directly analogous to the simpler and perhaps more familiar top-down enforcement of salary disparities, in which workers are convinced to keep quiet about their relative levels of earnings for fear of violating one another's privacy. It is worth looking at how this works, in order to understand the enforcement of professionalism more broadly.
Why should we be embarrassed to compare wages with a coworker?
Say you make less than your coworker. It is not because you wish to make less. Nor is it because you deserve to, as demonstrated by women being treated as lesser workers than men across entire spectra of work for which they are equally qualified.
Conversely, if you make more than your coworker, this is also not a state of affairs you could have chosen. Any awkwardness in this situation is squarely on the shoulders of the boss. Yet, it is the workers, paradoxically and perversely, who are made to feel embarrassed or ashamed, for a reality in which they had no say.
Oppressing one's structural subordinate, then blaming that subordinate for their own oppressive situation, is a classic tactic of abusers. This is the genesis and form of gaslighting, labor division and exploitation, uplift suasion, workplace misogyny, and so on. It is a dominant tactic of capitalists, both in and out of their workplaces.
Professionalism is a capitalist tactic that hurts human beings
Enforcement of professionalism in the workplace follows the same harmful logic as the taboo against discussing your wages with your coworkers. In fact, the latter case is generally rolled into the former as one of many such components. Within this umbrella of crap, we are told (among other awful things) the axiom that crying is unprofessional, which makes it a socially unacceptable mode by which to process our human grief in the inhuman context of the workplace.
Often, we are additionally told that we do not deserve to cry at all, anywhere, because whatever hardship we experience is intimated to be 1) our own fault and 2) not as hard as the hardships captained by others. Respectively, these techniques are examples of gaslighting and bad-faith argument, demonstrating how seemingly unconnected modes of oppressive interaction are actually entwined, and how impossible they are to fight on their own in a piecemeal approach. We already talked about how silly it is to cut up a human and think they're fine. Why do we think we'll have any better success addressing a complex human system as though it were a disparate collection of disconnected entities, rather than a self-supporting whole?
Capitalism demands professionalism because it does not think that human suffering deserves human sympathy. As long as there are capitalists, there will be bosses who fire us for crying, or refuse to hire us if we seem like someone who might someday cry.
Yet still this is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that when we deny ourselves tears, we deny ourselves the very solidarity, support, comfort, encouragement, and health that our tears might have stimulated from the human beings around us, in our workplace or out of it.
After all, how can anyone know we are grieving, when we cannot show our grief?
And so we don't.
Frequently, that is all it takes to complete the isolation that is already so exquisitely primed within our inhuman job sites.
How we keep from breaking
Like all capitalist workplace tactics, professionalism is designed to break humans apart into pieces. This is true at the individual level, and at the societal level. A person is made into an abstracted collection of 'efficient' qualities. A society is made into segregated classes taught to be suspicious or even hostile toward 'others'. Both of these modes of separation contribute to the incredibly synergistic relationship between capitalism and racism, and they must be fought in the same way that all of our most successful systemic battles have been fought.
If we do not eat, we break, so workers fought bloody battles to make employers pay workers eating wages, give workers rest time, and pay workers with actual money instead of access to overpriced company food stores.
If we do not sleep, we break, so workers waged literal wars to make employers pay workers housing wages, limit workdays to 8 hours (or even just less than 12), and limit workweeks to 40 hours.
If we do not feel, we break, so workers need to take whatever action will make our employers treat us as whole people, provide us with healthy and stimulating work environments, and allow us the space and time to celebrate or grieve the events that inevitably and constantly occur in all of our richly woven lives.
People are at all times messy and complicated
Being treated as whole people in the workplace means eliminating the noxious, deadly myth that a person can be reduced to a 2D 'professional' slice of their whole self. It means recognizing that we are, in fact, people: Loud, obnoxious, yelping creatures who unambiguously need to do things like breastfeed, and cry, and chew, and shit at irregular hours, and occasionally puke, sometimes in rapid combinatoric succession. It is also inevitable that all of these things will need to happen at some point during the hours we spend in our places of labor.
Yet even the freedom to be whole people does not mean much, unless it is freedom not only from administrative repercussions and legal sanction, but from reflexive social stigma as well. No one should see a crying coworker and respond as if a mythical 'professional' were violating their mythical 'professionalism'. Instead, in this scenario we should immediately see a whole person who is hurting in some way, who may need our support but who certainly does not need our criticism.
And this is all assuming that our coworker, or our own self, is able to cry in the first place. This can be quite hard to do, when the forfeiture of your tears has been demanded of you again, and again, and again, by others who were, themselves, trained in turn by yet others, trained to repress all emotion again, and again, and again, in an endless receding chain of broken people.
We should cry because it is unprofessional
Professionalism creates a cascade of twisted mirrors that send wrongly colored light through the portholes of our workplaces into unexpected parts of our minds. We become paranoid about things that should give us no paranoia, and become habituated to modes of thought that preclude emotion. As a man, this is already a huge issue for me, and I can state unequivocally that my employment history has made the issue worse.
For years now, I have been struggling, stretching myself, to learn how to cry. Even when I manage it, the slightest perceived disruption to my emotional safety derails the entire process. At times I have been deep within tears in front of an intimate partner, only to stop immediately, uncontrollably, and irreversibly upon being reminded of the presence of another human being who may judge me for my tears (someone please fact check whether human beings judge each other).
We break if we don't cry. We don't cry if we remain endlessly professional. Let's be unprofessional.
Note: Upon fact checking history, the author has determined that oppressive systems like racism and sexism are probably huge problems. As such, this piece's call against professionalism is definitely riskier for some demographics than for others. It almost seems like all oppressive systems support one another in a larger meta-system of oppressive systems. Can someone fact check that?