Crying in public tends to be frowned upon in our society. But why do we treat emotional reactions in society with such disrespect? In this article we explore this topic.
Have you cried in public, in front of acquaintances or complete strangers? If so, you still remember it clearly, probably because you thought it was not a pleasant image. In fact, as an approach, expressing our deepest emotions in front of others is an uncomfortable experience that often makes us feel ashamed.
However, in some cases it seems completely acceptable. For example, athletes often cry with joy, disappointment or sadness without being judged or criticized by the public. On the other hand, if someone bursts into tears in the middle of a business meeting, they are most likely labeled as ‘weak’. They may also be considered to be suffering from mental health problems.
Someone who cries does not always suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder. Crying is human. It is necessary and cathartic. It is as natural as eating, sleeping and breathing. Nevertheless, we continue to be told that such expressions should be kept in private.
The stigma of crying in public
Crying is an exocrine act. It is a physiological process in which a number of substances leave our body. The same thing happens when we exhale or sweat. This is a fundamental action, essential for our homeostasis and human well-being. And yet, no matter how natural it is, we still feel uncomfortable when we see others crying.
Despite the unwritten social commandments that tell us that such actions should be done in private, there is an interesting aspect that is often overlooked. It is the fact that the act of crying also has an evolutionary response. It is meant to awaken empathy and pro-social behavior in us. In other words, we should help those who need help or consolation.
Perhaps in the past this action was fulfilled. At the moment, however, seeing someone crying creates discomfort because not everyone knows how to behave – or wants to. Today we live in an individualistic world where everyone has to solve their own problems. In private, we can let go of our sorrows and suffering, but in the face of others we must show determination, control and security.
Holding back tears to appear competent (especially if you are a man)
Crying in public is a stigma, even more so if you are a man. Tilburg University conducted a study that confirms this fact. They confirmed once again that people often feel that they want to help those who are crying, but that it is an ambivalent feeling.
The research also claimed that people tend to see them as less competent when they cry in public. We perceive them as warmer and more emotional, but if we need to fulfill an important task, it is extremely likely that we ignore them. This is particularly evident in the male gender.
As a result, men who occasionally cry in public are seen as ineffective and incompetent in their job responsibilities.
Crying in public continues to be misunderstood
When a person bursts into tears in front of others, there is almost always the same reaction. ‘Calm down,’ they say. It’s as if they are out of their minds. It’s as if, like the computers we work on every day, they have encountered an error in their internal programming and need to be rebooted.
Nevertheless, the person who is crying does not need to calm down. They need to express their emotions. However, they are told to restrain themselves and are secretly taken to a room where they can calm down. Tears are interpreted as a danger, an indication that all balance, calm and reason have been lost and that stability must be restored.
This means that when someone is “broken”, they may end up feeling ashamed. Moreover, because they don’t know how to control themselves, they may even think that something is wrong with them and that their behavior is inappropriate.
The need to update our beliefs about emotional crying
The vast majority of people are empathetic and it bothers us to see someone crying. This is the case because we want everyone to be well and we want those around us to be happy, calm and in harmony.
However, our social narratives have injected us with extremely biased ideas about crying. These are all ideas that need to be demolished.
Tears are a social lubricant
Tears are a powerful social lubricant that invites group communication. We should keep this in mind. When we see someone breaking down and starting to cry, we should not tell them to calm down.
The most appropriate, cathartic and helpful thing we can do is to facilitate communication and emotional expression. It is always more appropriate to allow the person to express what they are feeling and what is happening to them. We don’t have to solve their problems for them, but starting an empathic dialog without judgment is the most humane, simple and useful strategy we can adopt.
Crying does not make us weak, it shows that we are sincere
People spend half their lives hiding their pain. We leave the house with our masks on and when someone asks us how we are, we say great. It doesn’t matter that our lives are turned upside down, what matters is that we look normal and show false happiness.
But there are also those who don’t know how to lie, or can’t lie, and they cry when they are hurt. It is not an act of weakness, it is an act of authenticity, even if we are ashamed and afraid of being judged. On the other hand, if the act of crying in public were normalized, we would have a better understanding of human nature and how useful crying can be.
Perhaps it would make us more altruistic towards each other and we would even realize that we are all the same and we are all dealing with the same problems and concerns. After all, the strongest people are not those who endure the most, but those who acknowledge and express what they feel and look for ways to resolve the pain.