In defence of crying in public

31 March 2022
By Isabelle Truman

With the opening of crying clubs and suggestion of health benefits, does our perception of sob sessions need an overhaul?

Image: Gallery Stock.

At primary school, a boy named Matthew told me I look ugly when I cry. He chose to disclose this piece of information while I was sobbing in the classroom after being dumped by my first crush. His comments didn’t do much to stop my tears at the time, but they have affected my feelings about crying in public ever since. 

I can’t remember Matthew’s last name, but his words pop into my head whenever (and it happens more often than I’d like) I find myself crying with an audience. I cry in the back of Ubers when I’m running late, and on the footpath when a car horn gives me a fright. I cry when I’m frustrated, when I’m embarrassed and when I’m tired. If any of these things happen to coincide with me being hungry, one tissue won’t be enough to do the trick.

I’m so used to showing my emotions via smudged mascara and streams of tears running down my face that I’ve become an expert at working around moments like these. This includes but is not limited to keeping my handbag stocked with waterproof mascara, eye drops, concealer and a compact mirror. 

It’s not just when I’m heartbroken or hungry that I’ll engage in a sobfest. I cry when I’m watching MasterChef and someone makes a dish that gets praise from all three judges. I cry when I’ve had a bad day and come home to dinner on the table. Sometimes I feel like crying just looking at my sleeping cat. I’ve always been an emotional person — I’m an empath, I’m a rom-com lover. Perhaps the best way to describe it is: I’m a Pisces.

Like Kim Kardashian, an ugly cry gets the best of me at the best of times. But despite being able to laugh about my emotions and textbook horoscope sensitivity with my boyfriend when he spots me, yet again, sobbing over a 30-second ad on TV, being someone who can’t control the waterworks has always been a trait I’ve disliked in myself. 

During heated arguments, I desperately try to hold back the tears, worried that people won’t take what I’m saying seriously if I can’t control myself or, worse, that they’ll think crying is a way of manipulating the situation in my favour. I’m constantly frustrated that I feel everything so deeply and cringe at the thought of times I’ve had to briskly walk to the office bathroom to dab my eyes before anyone notices. 

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Crying is something everyone (granted, some more than others) does, yet it still remains one of the human body’s more confounding mysteries. Though some other species shed tears reflexively as a result of pain or irritation, humans are the only ones whose tears can be triggered by their feelings. In babies, this makes sense — tears being a crucial way to solicit care and attention from adults — but once we can use speech to express our needs, the need to cry becomes void. 

Scientists have researched the phenomenon for centuries yet always fall short of finding a definitive reason why grown-ups continue to cry. At first, many researchers doubted there were any real pluses of crying beyond the physiological: tears lubricate the eyes. But now, more are beginning to believe it can have important health benefits. In fact, studies have found that emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones than basal (aka lubricating) or reflex (the ones that form when you get something in your eye or when you’re cutting onions) tears. They’ve also found that emotional tears contain more mood-regulating manganese than the other types. 

Image: Shutterstock.

In certain cultures, crying is considered to be incredibly important. The Japanese are such strong believers in its health benefits that cities in Japan now have ‘crying clubs’ called rui-katsu (translating literally as ‘tear-seeking’), where people come together for a group sob. Crying club attendees watch tearjerker movies to bring on the waterworks, which is thought to release stress and help participants regulate their mental health.

Even after studies showing benefits worthy of a Goop-docuseries and years of destigmatising mental health, research into crying still isn’t definitive and public outbursts aren’t normalised. Instead, crying outside the safety of your home sits in the frowned-upon box in most Western countries — especially when the workplace is concerned. In a study of more than 14,000 women, 87 percent said they’ve cried at work — even Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has admitted to it.

No matter how common it is, women are still made to feel as if they need to hide their tears. During university, I worked part-time at a restaurant and I’d cry in its walk-in freezer; the cold helped to de-puff my eyes and also made for a good excuse as to why I’d emerge red-faced. In my first office job, the bathroom cubicles were where women would dash to, letting themselves weep quietly for a few minutes before recomposing themselves in the mirror. In my last position working on a magazine, the fashion cupboard was the place where you’d find interns, assistants and editors crying beside sparkly Miu Miu gowns. 

It makes sense that women feel as if they need to dash to the closest closet to hide their feelings. Research consistently shows that women who cry at work can be perceived as weak, unprofessional and manipulative — meanwhile, men who do the same are viewed more positively. Moreover, the embarrassment of crying in the office is far more of a prevalent issue for women than it is for men because, on average, women cry more than men do. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, the average woman cries between 30 and 64 times a year, and the average man between six and 17 times. During a single cry, men tend to shed tears for between two and four minutes, while women cry for about six minutes. Crying turns into sobbing for women in 65 percent of cases, compared to just six percent for men.

Forty-one percent of women admitted to crying at work in 2018, compared to just nine percent of men. The reason for the divide is partly biological: women have more prolactin (a hormone related to crying) than men in their systems, and we also have smaller tear ducts, so while a man could well up with tears, they’d be less likely than a woman’s to spill down his cheeks. 

As anyone who cries regularly will know, it’s often not sadness that makes people cry. Instead, it’s “helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioural responses to a problem situation,” writes Ad Vingerhoets, a Dutch psychologist and leading crying researcher. Generally speaking, women tend to react differently to emotional situations than men. Instead of grabbing the tissues when they’re upset, men are more likely to shout, snap and slam doors, and when they do, it’s perceived in a less negative light than if a woman cries. In her book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, Anne Kreamer writes that two-thirds of young men believe displaying anger is an effective management tool, even though explosive anger has been found to be devaluing and demotivating to staff. When men do erupt in anger, Kreamer says they’re less likely to stew over it or feel humiliated, whereas women can cringe at the memory of crying in front of their boss for years after the fact. 

It’s probably not the best idea to make crying a common occurrence in the boardroom, but when our personal and professional lives have blurred so much, it’s more unrealistic than ever to expect people to leave their emotions at the door. We now talk and text our friends and family constantly throughout the day, and are bombarded with updates from outside the office. We answer work emails at the pub, and with the pandemic prompting more companies to explore remote working and lockdowns still taking place around the world, work literally is home for many people. 

One theory floating around with scientists is that crying evolved as a way to communicate a need for help or support. Crying with others and being outwardly vulnerable is a way of building community and breaking down barriers. A study Vingerhoets conducted in 2016 found that when confronted with crying people, subjects perceived them as more friendly and felt a greater interpersonal connection, which in turn made them more willing to help them than their fellow dry-eyed participants. 

Although some people shed tears fewer than others, suffering is a fundamental element of the human experience, whether you deal with it by getting angry, retreating into yourself, laughing your way through it, or having a big, ugly cry. According to Vingerhoets, it’s probably futile to try to teach yourself how to cry or, in my case, how to cry less. Instead, we should change our perception of our emotions, and take our tears out of the freezer and into the hallway, where our colleagues will likely sympathise with our plight. After all, the stats show they’ve probably been in a similar situation.

I’m beginning to think there’s a reason Kim Kardashian starts to seem relatable when you watch her on TV, despite her fame and millions of dollars, and I’d say her vulnerability has a little something to do with it. Now, is anyone up for starting a crying club?

Read Isabelle Truman’s musings on how the pandemic changed our identities, friendships, and the way we work

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