I waited three months after I was discharged from the hospital for suicidal depression to make contact with the professional world again. I wanted to be sure I didn’t “crack,” like I had done in a group therapy session. A publishing conference seemed like an ideal, safe place to meet. A crowded room of book editors would certainly prevent any emotional outbursts on my part. So I reached out to colleague who had been feeding me assignments pre-nervous breakdown and invited her for a cup of coffee.
“How are you?” she asked me.
I stood there frozen, trying my best to mimic the natural smile I had practiced in front of the bathroom mirror that would accompany the words, “Fine! Thank you. How are you?”
Instead I burst into tears. Not a cute little whimper. A loud and ugly bawling — pig snorts included — the kind of sobbing widows do behind closed doors when the funeral is done.
“There’s the beginning and the end,” I thought. “Time to pay the parking bill.”
But something peculiar happened in that excruciating exchange: we bonded.
Embarrassment Leads to Trust
Researchers at the University of California, Berkley conducted five studies that confirmed this very phenomena: embarrassment — and public crying certainly qualifies as such — has a positive role in the bonding of friends, colleagues, and mates. The findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that people who embarrass easily are more altruistic, prosocial, selfless, and cooperative. In their gestures of embarrassment, they earn greater trust because others classify the transparency of expression (buried head, blushing, crying) as trustworthiness.
Robb Willer, Ph.D., an author of the study, writes, “Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life.”
Now public crying is even better than splitting your swimsuit in half during swim practice or asking a woman when her baby is due only to learn it was born four months ago (also guilty). Tears serve many uses. According to Dr. William Frey II, a biochemist and Director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, emotional tears (as opposed to tears of irritability) remove toxins as well as chemicals like the endorphin leucine-enkaphalin and prolactin that have built up in the body from stress. Crying also lowers a person’s manganese level, a mineral that affects mood.
In a New York Times article, science writer Jane Brody quotes Dr. Frey:
Crying is an exocrine process, that is, a process in which a substance comes out of the body. Other exocrine processes, like exhaling, urinating, defecating and sweating, release toxic substances from the body. There’s every reason to think crying does the same, releasing chemicals that the body produces in response to stress.
Crying Builds a Community
Anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said in a Science Digest article that crying builds a community. Having done my share of public crying this last year, I think he is right.
If you spot a person crying in the back of the room at, say, a school fundraiser, your basic instinct (if you are a nice person) is to go comfort that person. A few might say she’s pathetic for displaying public emotions, much like the couple fighting in the hallway; however, most people are empathetic and want the crying to end because on some level it makes us uncomfortable — we want everyone to be happy, like the mom who pops a pacifier or a stick of butter into her 6-year-old’s mouth to shut him up.
The high sensitive types begin to swarm around this woman, as she divulges her life story. Voila! You find yourself with a group of new best friends in an Oprah moment, each person offering intimate details about herself. A women’s retreat has started, and there is no need for a lake house.
In a 2009 study published in Evolutionary Psychology, participants responded to images of faces with tears and faces with tears digitally removed, as well as tear-free control images. It was determined that tears signaled sadness and resolved ambiguity. According to Robert R. Provine, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tears are a kind of social lubricant, helping people communicate. Says the abstract: “The evolution and development of emotional tearing in humans provide a novel, potent and neglected channel of affective communication.”
In a February 2016 study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers replicated and extended previous work by showing that tearful crying facilitates helping behavior and identified why people are more willing to help criers. First, the display of tears increases perceived helplessness of a person, which leads to a higher willingness to help that person. Second, crying individuals are typically perceived to be more agreeable and less aggressive and elicit more sympathy and compassion.
The third reason I find most interesting: seeing tears makes us feel more closely connected to the crying individual. According to the study, “This increase in felt connectedness with a crying individual could also promote prosocial behavior. In other words, the closer we feel to another individual, the most altruistically we behave towards that person.” The authors refer to ritual weeping, say, after adversity and disasters or when preparing for war. Those common tears build bonds between people.
I don’t LIKE crying. And certainly not in front of people. It feels humiliating, like I’m not in control of my emotions. However, I no longer practice smiling in front of the mirror or the sentiments that are packaged with the grin. I have learned to embrace my PDT — public display of tears — and be my transparent self, even if the result is more pig snorts.