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When the Customer Makes you Cry


Please forgive me if I strengthen any hurtful stereotypes about women in business with what I am about to say. I know that it is hard enough for women to earn equal respect with men in today’s world without feeding clichés, but for me, this one is true.  

Hello. My name is Tamara. And when someone yells at me, I cry. 

To my constant dismay, I have an actual physical reaction to situations of emotional stress and confrontation. No matter how hard I may try to fight them off or how much I try to develop a “thick skin,” my tears well up at incredibly inopportune times. I remember crying in front of a college professor because I had to try and fight my way into a specific program. I cried in front of my last employer when I was relocated to a corner of an unused back office (think

Milton from Office Space). And I cried when a recent client sent a really nasty email about our professional differences of opinion. 

I would like to blame my emotional outbursts on having given birth. While I have certainly become more prone to tears since my daughter was born (if that is really possible), the fact of the matter is, the crying episodes were always there.  

For some people, the initial reaction to high stress or confrontation is to get angry. For others, it is to emotionally withdraw. For still others, it may take the shape of binge eating or the overwhelming urge to exercise. For me, it just happens to be crying, usually for much longer than one would think seemly. But no matter what your reaction, the fact of the matter is, there are going to be times when a client does not react appropriately to a situation (and by appropriately, I mean without yelling at you). In trying to find ways to counteract my own tendency to waterworks, I have developed the following list of coping strategies. 

Rationalize the situation 

In most cases, when someone is angry enough to verbally (or in my case, through writing) lash out at another person, the situation isn’t really about you. It’s actually about the other person. 

Think about times in the past when you have yelled at someone else, especially in the professional capacity. Maybe you were mad at a client because they underestimated the scope of a project (either on purpose or unintentionally), so you had to put in twice as much time as you imagined for the same flat rate. Although some of your anger should obviously fall on the shoulders of the client, is it really enough to yell over? If you did yell, was it more because they cheated you or because you let yourself get cheated? 

If you are able to, take a step away from the situation and view it as a distant observer. In most cases, you will be able to see exactly where the other people are coming from and why they might feel angry enough to take it out on you. Although this never excuses this kind of behavior, it may help you to realize that all the yelling was not a personal attack, and that you are actually the better person for remaining professional in the face of hurtful words.  

Confront back 

This is not a tactic that I have ever personally used, but it is one that I dream about using all the time. Instead of sitting idly by when someone lashes out at you, you can use the opportunity to defend yourself and possibly even point fingers back. Of course, this will probably mean professional suicide as far as ever using that client again, but it may just be worth it. 

Professionally, I would never advocate this approach, simply because it isn’t the most effective way to run a business. However, I do think it has its place among certain people and in certain situations. I know people who are verbally explosive in response to anger. For them, it is a quick and therapeutic way to deal with their emotions and move on. If a client refuses to work with you to find a solution, already considers him or herself to be in the right, and just wants to make you feel bad, chances are you will never want to work with the client again anyway. If you are the kind of person who needs to react outwardly in order to find closure, defending your side of the story (while refraining from personal attacks) may be the best way to cope. 

Get the tears over with 

I have this odd theory about crying. I feel like every couple of months or so, I just need a good cry; I find it to be pretty therapeutic. If I find myself getting to the point where the tears are obviously ready to get themselves an outlet, with or without my help, I will take advantage of a professional confrontation to get my much-needed sob-fest endorphins.  

For example, if I am dealing with high levels of emotional stress due to work, I will sometimes find the saddest movie I can to watch. When Legends of the Fall makes me cry for the umpteenth time, the emotional release sort of crosses the border from tears about the movie to tears about my own frustrations. By the time the movie is over and my tears are all dried up, I have released all the stress that has been bottled up. I am then ready to move on to confront any and all business transactions, blissfully tear free.      


In a recent article I read on Work It, Mom!, Caitlin McDonald addresses the issue of The Asshole Fee. This self-explanatory fee is used to help the author to deal with nasty customers by making emotional stress come with a price tag. If a client wants to lash out at you in anger, charge them for it. If that same client wants to come back and work for you again, give them a quote that incorporates the frustrations that you know will accompany the project. 

While I wouldn’t professionally condone adding fees that weren’t agreed upon in advance, I love the basic premise of TAF: to use humor as a coping strategy. By giving herself a little chuckle (and a little extra cash), McDonald is able to move quickly from anger back to the task at hand.  

One more plug for the business partner 

I love my business partner. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or stressed out due to work, I pick up the phone and give Lorna a call. She is 100 percent on my side and able to talk me down from whatever emotional heights I may be teetering upon. If a client yells, I know that I have an immediate support network; she will let me cry if I need to, yell if I need to, or laugh if I need to. 

In an ideal world, no one would let their anger get the better of them. Everyone would behave with the utmost professional propriety and conduct their transactions with a calm, level head. Lashing out at others would not play a part of the business community. I would also have been born without tear ducts. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, miscommunications will arise, clients will be unhappy, and people will yell at you. And no matter how much I hate it, I am emotionally tied into my work. 

While many people advocate developing a thick skin in order to work in the freelancing field, for some of us, this isn’t an option. My skin is thin and I am glad that I can’t just take someone yelling at me in stride. However, if you plan on keeping your emotions where everyone can see them, you too should develop some coping strategies. By being able to return to your work with all the enthusiasm it deserves even when a client refuses to act with propriety, you can continue being a successful freelancer—with all your humanity intact.

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    On October 15th, 2007 at 2:56 pm, Lorna Doone Brewer said:

    Tamara - Lady Jane is sure to bring on a cathartic sob-fest for me! I also feel like I should add, “I love you, Man!” ;-)

    On October 15th, 2007 at 4:24 pm, Deb said:


    This is going to come out all sideways so take a couple of deep breaths and read it twice.

    You have a gift you don’t know how to appreciate because our society has deemed it a failing. Emotions and tears, because they are so defined by culture, make us feel unprofessional and out-of-control. But that is not the truth. Emotions and tears are red-flags and safety valves, and they are also our connection to ourselves and each other.

    This client is disrespectful. You do not need to allow anyone to continue to treat you disrespectfully regardless of differences in professional opinions. You are a person of worth and dignity. Even though crying (whether he saw it or not) might feel at the moment like a victory for him try to hold on to the notion that he is doing this regularly and eventually will have no one left to bid on his work because he can’t really hide behind email anymore.

    You used the term “confront back” and to a point (undefined) that is not a bad stance to take, maybe not the first option but anyway. But even Seth Godin acknowledges that some customers are too expensive and it’s okay to fire them. Whatever it costs to get rid of them is going to be a bargain over trying to make a bad relationship work.

    This one may have been a male but I personally have found women to be more insidious in drawing blood in a disagreement. Chin up.

    On October 15th, 2007 at 8:43 pm, Lulu Island Freelance Mom said:

    Forgive me in advance, esp if you cry, but COME ON, you’re giving moms and female entrepreneurs everywhere a bad name; Why on earth would you CRY!? Be cooler than that, hold it in and give a snappy witty come back. Practice! Jeezus, it’s not THAT difficult to deal with irrate customers. Maybe you should work part time at a hardware store, just to practise. And like Deb said above, you can fire the customer (or your boss) Have more self respect! Jeez. Your article totally pissed me off!

    On October 15th, 2007 at 9:19 pm, Tamara Berry said:

    First of all, thanks to all those who support me on this one! It really took some guts for me to lay all this out on the table, but I feel like this blog is supposed to show freelance moms and dads what it really feels like to take on the task of starting a business. That includes all the positive stuff as well as the darker emotional underbelly that is human interaction and conflict.

    Lulu Island, you’ll be happy to know that I didn’t tear up at your comment!

    Before becoming a freelancer, I worked in retail and food service for years. I have been yelled at by irate customers more times than I care to remember. And each time, it got to me emotionally.

    It has taken me years to disover that this is just the kind of person I am, and I’m pretty sure that this discovery will continue for the rest of my life. I feel things pretty deeply, and I have a physical reaction to emotional stress. As I said in the article, I’m sorry if it feeds into stereotypes. But it’s who I am.

    On October 16th, 2007 at 12:41 am, Deb said:


    You are not responsible for other people’s interpretations or reactions.

    In high school (don’t ask how long ago that was) a teacher defined stereotype as shorthand for shallow people. Maybe she met your commenter.

    On October 16th, 2007 at 3:22 pm, Naomi Dunford said:

    One of the things I love about blogging is the community. I love that we can meet like-minded people and share our thoughts, our wisdom, and our experience. Like any good concept, though, human beings tend to show up and screw the whole thing up.

    Good for you guys to come to Tamara’s defense on this one. I don’t know what kind of a benefit anyone receives by saying something unnecessarily combative in a situation like this. Tamara used a lot of courage to detail an emotionally vulnerable situation, something we all can learn from. The person who responded negatively isn’t even going to get any traffic from her comment since her URL doesn’t work. What on earth was it for, then?

    Tamara, you go ahead and cry if you need to. People of both genders have been yelling and screaming because of stress for years. Some people get drunk or high or emotionally absent - I think a little cry every now and again is a pretty damn good way to cope.

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