Unobstructed by the boundaries of “workplace etiquette” or “people seeing me,” I (earnest, sorry) cried when Bernie Sanders made his concession speech and dropped out of the presidential race in April. I occasionally cried while reporting, especially when listening to the audio version of the work diaries that I edit into How I Get By, like the one about the ER veterinarian or the elementary school teacher or the professional Santa Claus.
It’s been a scary, sad, surreal ten months since New York City began shutting down in mid-March, and I have been happy to cry my way through them. Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to work from home—because, let’s be honest, to be essential and customer-facing or unemployed would be objectively harder—have adjusted to all-remote everything.
We’ve jerry-rigged solutions to soothe our aching backs, discovered desks, reoriented our days and learned to produce through it. There are, admittedly, some serious benefits to working from home: Laundry whenever! No more commute! More family time! Room to cook and work out, all in the same day! But, for my money, one perk reigns supreme: The freedom to cry at the drop of a hat is the truest and most enduring benefit of working from home.
In the past couple of weeks alone, I have cried during business hours:
- Looking at the New York Times list of photographs that defined 2020
- Listening to my own Spotify Wrapped playlist
- Reading the Wikipedia summary of Call Me By Your Name, a movie I have never seen
- Watching a video clip embedded in a Vulture guide to the 90 Day Fiancé franchise, and
- Reading the following tweet:
(I teared up a little again just pasting in the link!)
I’ve always had a little bit of a hairpin trigger for crying while working remotely. Before I started this job, I spent a year and a half out of a regular office environment, with the tail end split between my apartment and a WeWork—a space impersonal enough that I definitely cried there, too.
I have enjoyed the freedom to let it all out on the clock, shedding tears at an evocative Google ad that autoplayed before a news segment I needed to aggregate or a Reddit post about a stepdad telling his wife’s children that he’d never think of them as anything other than his own. I wasn’t especially sad at work every day (maybe slightly depressed, but shh). I was mostly just bored. While I wasn’t purposefully looking to make myself cry all day, every day, it felt good, in a base way, to express a big emotion every once in a while when staying in one place all day made life feel especially flat.
What does all this crying do for me, exactly? Pushing one’s negative emotional buttons can be one way to combat boredom, something psychologist Pam Rutledge told VICE in November. “Having your emotions activated in a way that you would expect that you know you're going to resolve can actually be pleasurable,” she said. Although crying has not been proven to connect to stress or pain relief across the board, studies have shown that belief that crying will bring catharsis can actually make it so.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of great reasons publicly crying isn’t acceptable in a shared workspace. Alison Green, the work etiquette genius (and occasional VICE contributor!) behind Ask a Manager, told the New York Times that work crying can be OK… on a very case-by-case basis. Green stressed that a little in a stressful one-on-one meeting or a bathroom is perfectly normal, while “full-on, body-wracking sobs are pretty much always out of place,” as are public displays of negative emotion, barring extreme, unforeseen circumstances.
Public crying is distracting, it’s disorienting to witness, and sometimes it even catches—according to Well+Good, people who are especially prone to empathy and active listening are sometimes vulnerable to “emotional contagion,” picking up on the feelings of others to such a degree that they take them on themselves. I would never want to set off a chain reaction of sympathetic crying in my colleagues (even if it meant they really like me <3).
Making work a cry-free zone is a norm I will welcome back with open arms once I’m (fingers crossed!) around my coworkers again in Summer 2021. I’m happy to leave emotional precarity at home, where it belongs, and reinstate firm boundaries between where I make money and where I do everything else. But the release from the binds of workplace behavior expectations has been essential this year, when many of us weathered intense, often devastating, and always stressful life events.
In mid-October, one of my close family members, someone very present in my childhood and life beyond, passed away after contracting COVID-19 over the summer. I found out in the middle of the work day—it wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but still not the kind of news that’s easy to take on the chin, especially not in the middle of an open office plan. The rest of that work day and the work days that followed were as good of a distraction as anything else. The hum of productivity was soothing, especially when COVID also took traveling to her funeral and convening with my relatives off the table.
I tend to cry more about the external than I do about my personal emotional events, but it was, and has been, incredibly nice to be able to cry intermittently, unobserved, in my own apartment, on my own schedule.
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