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Is it ever wise to cry at work?

SHERYL Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and, according to Time magazine, one of the world's 100 most influential people. She is also a billionaire several times over. When she says something about how to succeed in the workplace, people tend to listen.

Which is why it was such a shock to hear her advice to graduates of the class of 2012: don't be afraid to cry at work.

At an otherwise perfectly sensible address at Harvard, she revealed: "I've cried at work. I've told people I've cried at work. I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs. I try to be myself."

Sandberg is not alone. Hillary Clinton famously cried when she lost the Iowa primary to Barack Obama. Bertie Ahern once memorably claimed that when he informed the cabinet of his decision to step down as their leader, every single Fianna Fail minister broke down in tears.

Meanwhile, Anne Kreamer, a former Fortune 500 executive and sometime Worldwide Creative Director for Nickleodeon, is a firm advocate for workplace weeping.

She has even written a book on the topic called It's Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, in which she says that she found "people at all levels of management had cried at work, dispelling the notion it's career suicide".

Their comments have reopened a debate that has long divided the workplace: is it ever okay to cry at work? Absolutely not, says Brenda Kelly, a financial analyst with CMC markets. "Only if someone has died. I remember working with a lady back in the day who was tagged 'the one who's always crying'. How mortifying," she says.

"I've mostly worked in a predominantly male environment so it's a total no-no for me."

Food journalist and writer Rozanne Stevens is another one who won't be following Sandberg's advice. "I don't think it's okay to cry in work over work-related issues. It is unprofessional and doesn't help your cause. Colleagues may even see it as manipulative."

But despite the fact that most people I canvassed agreed that crying at work is only acceptable in extreme circumstances -- news of a family death; redundancy or persistent workplace bullying, say -- it seems many of us do it anyway.

According to Kreamer's research, an estimated two in five of women have found themselves welling up in the office, along with around one in ten men.

I'm one of the other three in five. During my decade-and-a-half working in the media, in sometimes highly stressful environments, I have never once found myself in tears -- not even last year, when I was sitting at my desk in the middle of the morning news rush, and got a call from a neighbour to say our beloved family pet had been run over. My lip wobbled and my throat filled up, as I made my excuses and got off the phone. But I managed not to cry. (Which is just as well: it turned out it was someone else's black-and-white cat.)

So why am I so afraid to show my emotions at work? As the manager of a team of journalists, I thought it would make me look unprofessional and weak. Rightly or wrongly, I believed, I would be letting myself -- and my entire gender -- down. The sad fact is that many men still see women as emotional timebombs -- and by crying at work, you are simply doing what the boys' club expects.

"Women said they cried to get angry, but didn't know how to express themselves without being labelled "a b***h". At this point, tears mean: 'Stop being the aggressor against me'," says Anne Kreamer.

If I'm honest, that's precisely what I'm afraid of. Surely there are more effective and dignified ways to express your anger?


Yet interestingly, Kreamer's study backs up my own, highly unscientific findings -- which is that men are actually more sympathetic than women to crying at work.

Paul Watson, who works in the IT sector, admits he cried at work after hearing of a family death and says sometimes it's the only response to stress.

Another senior male journalist with a role in management told me privately he had both cried and had people cry in front of him at work -- and none of it fazed him in the least.

The reason for this might be found in a recent study from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Researchers discovered that when women cry, men's testosterone levels drop significantly. Just the smell of a woman's tears was enough to send testosterone and arousal levels into a downwards spiral. In other words, crying can actually be an effective way of disarming your difficult, testosterone-fuelled boss. And he might feel better if he had one too, writes Kreamer.

"We found that in spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they've failed a feminism test. In contrast, the male criers in our survey tended to report that after their c rying, their minds felt sharper, the future seemed brighter, and they felt more physically relaxed and in control. In short: women feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better."

Just ask Bertie Ahern, who cried in public on at least two occasions (funnily enough, both of them in front of live TV audiences of thousands.)

So is it time I got the Kleenex out and discovered for myself the benefits of a good, old-fashioned blub?

Barbara Scully, who works in PR for the charity sector, says I should just go for it. "I don't think we should be afraid of crying ever. It's a perfectly natural human response. I've cried at work. The sky didn't fall in," she says.

"I think it's what makes us human. We don't stop being human just because we are in work. Cry away, I say. Put tissues on all the desks."

I'm still not convinced that crying in any public context other than at a funeral, a football match or in a wine bar very late at night, is ever appropriate for people over the age of seven.

When there's even the slightest chance that your tears could be perceived as designed to win over a potentially unsympathetic audience, they're definitely best avoided.