I cried in a meeting. I wish I hadn’t. Now I am thinking about about that.
Over the years, I have sometimes had a quiet little cry in my office or in the bathroom or, once when I was a visiting speaker and couldn’t find a bathroom quickly enough, in the back of a building behind a dumpster. I did not feel badly about those occasions. I needed a few moments to have a lot of feelings and those quiet, private moments of crying were the most efficient way for me to center myself again and go back into the room with those feelings nicely channeled towards whatever work I had to do in that room.
But this time was different. It was in a meeting with others. And I regretted it. It was uncomfortable for me and, I’m pretty sure, for the people in the room with me.
Has this happened to you?
Even the most cursory search will show that there is no shortage of internet wisdom about gender and crying at work. Make no mistake, it is gendered. Olga Khazan summarizes research by Stephanie Shields and Leah Warner, “The Perception of Crying in Women and Men: Angry Tears, Sad Tears, and the “Right Way” to Cry“:
Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up)… The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.
Popular discussions (such as this one, but there are lots of others) of gender and crying in the workplace often circle back to Mika Brzezinski who wept when she was fired as co-host of a morning show on MSNBC. She is very clear about regretting having cried and adheres to the classic formula of equating emotional control with power:
When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work … much more control over any situation … and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.
This advice is the exact opposite of what Hook & Eye has advocated in the past. Margaux Feldman’s brilliant 2015 post, “There’s No Crying in Academia,” is a manifesto for making public the labour of feeling in the work that we do:
Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering.
In a follow-up post, Tanis MacDonald writes movingly about working while in grief and the importance of showing our students “that grief forges its own pedagogical model.”
Here’s the thing. I agree with Margaux and Tanis (yes, all the feels and all the feels in a way that embraces how the work of feeling is central to the work of thinking), but I secretly want to agree with Mika. I would much rather not ever, ever cry in a meeting or a similar kind of setting where there are others in the room who are not crying.
It’s not because I believe that I have ceded power or that the people in the room will think less of me. After going over that meeting in my head a few times, I wish I hadn’t cried because crying took so much out of me that I couldn’t get back. There was so much feeling in that moment, and I’m not ashamed of that, but I also wish I could have felt a little less. Feeling so much took me away from me.
I’m reminded of one of my favourite moments (I’ve written about it before in my academic work) in Rei Terada’s Feeling in Theory, where she talks about the zombies in George Romero’s films as being “notably undivided about their desires.” As a “well-known counterillustration,” she offers the case of the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner:
In the film … the explicitly sentimental moment for the replicant played by Sean Young—the one time she cries—is the moment when she discovers that she’s a replicant, whose memories are not her own. We assume she had feelings before, but reserving the sight of her tears for this occasion dramatizes the fact that destroying the illusion of subjectivity does not destroy emotion, that on the contrary, emotion is the sign of the absence of that illusion. (Terada 2001: 157)
“Unlike replicants,” Terada argues, “zombies don’t experience themselves as though they were someone else” (Terada 2001: 157). There is something noble about the zombie’s undivided desires, the clarity of it, that I would like to replicate but I know that I can’t maintain it. I can’t feel without division. The best I can do is to recognize that the expression of intense emotion — let’s call it crying in a meeting for now — is a deeply alienating moment where I am experiencing myself as though I were someone else. It is not fun to feel this way but it is a discomfort that I have to hang on to because I want to be alive to the difficulties and the deeply divided desires at the heart of all the good fights that I want to keep fighting.