Crying in the office

It was 4am on Monday morning when the message came in. My phone vibrated only once, but I was instantly awake.

The grim news about Mr Lee Kuan Yew was, after all, what my colleagues and I - and the rest of Singapore - had been on tenterhooks about for the whole of the previous week.

In this era of instant breaking news, there was no time for emotion. I quickly filed a couple of articles online and headed to the office.

It wasn't until 8am, when I sat in front of a screen to transcribe Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's address to the nation, that sentiment finally caught up with me.

As PM Lee spoke about the nation's loss and his own personal grief, he visibly held back tears.

Not being made of Prime Ministerial material, I failed to do the same.

Even as my fingers were feverishly typing out his words, fat teardrops rolled down my cheeks. I couldn't wipe them away in case I missed a comma or fullstop, so there they remained for ridicule, which arrived swiftly.

"Are you crying?" one of my younger, more hardened colleagues asked loudly and incredulously.

"Of course, it's a natural reaction - it's just so sad," I said, attempting to sound as logical as one can while weeping.

It was a skill I would have to keep honing throughout the week as the touching tributes that streamed in for the late Mr Lee led me to turn on the waterworks freely.

At one point, my boss caught me in the middle of a particularly bad case of the sniffles. I tried to pretend it was a cold, but my teary eyes were a dead giveaway.

I'm not sure who was more discomfited: me at losing my professional composure or him at having to navigate the delicate personnel problem of a blubbering subordinate.

For the rest of the day, he kept shooting me concerned looks, as though afraid that if he took his eyes off me, I would melt into a puddle of tears. "You okay or not?" he asked me every few hours.

"Yes," I reassured him exasperatedly. "I just can't help being sad!"

He still looked uncomfortable, and I couldn't really blame him.

For many people - including myself, most of the time - the office is supposed to be a sanctuary from the messy emotions of daily life, where efficiency takes precedence over the touchy-feely.

Yet if you spend as much of your day in the office as most Singaporeans do, some feelings will inevitably bubble up during a work day. In fact, the first time I cried at work was during my first few months on the job.

I had just graduated from university and was going through a bad break-up. One day, in the middle of lunch with my new colleagues, I found, to my horror, that my eyes had started to leak and couldn't stop.

Thankfully, my colleagues - who were all older than me - were immensely sympathetic. Several took me aside for pep talks, while my boss at the time bought me an entertaining guide to "rediscovering the single life".

Not everyone is as sympathetic, though. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson has famously said that she "(doesn't) like women crying in the office", and that even if she were "exhausted to the point of weeping", she is too proud to cry.

Part of the stigma about crying in the office stems from the fact that it is seen as a "female" weakness, like taking the day off because of severe menstrual cramps.

But this seems unfair given that "male" weaknesses - such as losing your temper and yelling at colleagues - are not equally derided and may in fact be respected.

Either way, there's a difference between giving in to one moment of weakness and regularly suffering from hysterical meltdowns. There should be no shame in showing your feelings at work, as long as they don't prevent you from doing your job.

So after breaking down that first year, I resolved never to cry again in the office - a goal I managed to accomplish until last week.

However, I had learnt my lesson. Instead of watching Mr Lee's funeral along with everyone else in the office, I hid in a corner and read the eulogies on my iPhone, snivelling copiously.

Then I wiped my eyes, blew my nose, dusted myself off - and got back to work.

fiochan@sph.com.sg