Crying in Public

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I recently walked in on one of my co-workers crying in the bathroom.

At first, I didn't realize she was crying. She was leaning into the mirror in a posture I usually associate with the removal of a stray eyelash or the application of lipstick. I was already past her by the time I registered her red eyes, her puffy face.

I've had only a handful of exchanges with this woman. She is young and soft-spoken, a relatively new hire to my company. We work on opposites sides of the office and in separate functions. We are practically strangers.

She was still leaning into the mirror as I washed my hands. That's when I saw a tear slide down her cheeks.

I looked away.


Every day, we witness public displays of emotion. We see people argue on street corners, laugh over lunch, kiss on the train. But there's something about sadness that feels private. Crying into your pillow is one thing, but crying in public can feel downright shameful.

I've had a few of my own public crying sessions over the years, with one particularly cringe-worthy incident not long ago. A misunderstanding with my boyfriend resulted in me sobbing in the Montgomery Street BART station on a bustling Thursday night. It was mortifying. "What must they think of me?" I agonized, as clusters of my fellow passengers waited nearby for their trains.  At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to disappear.

Back in the bathroom at work, I was torn between sympathy and embarrassment for my co-worker. I couldn't imagine what could have driven her to tears by 10 a.m. on a Monday morning. I wondered if I should try to comfort her. But then I thought back to that night in the BART station and I was pretty sure that if anyone had attempted to console me it would have only added to my already considerable humiliation.

Looking back, I'd like to say that I consoled my co-worker, that after a good chat, we parted ways with raised spirits. Instead, I dried my hands and left the bathroom. At the time, it seemed the kindest thing, to leave her alone with her grief.

But what if I was wrong?

With a Perspective, I'm Lisa Thomson.

Lisa Thomson is a marketer and writer. She lives in Oakland.