Crying in public: about my overhydrated eyes

I know, I know, it’s been a fortnight… But I’ve been busy, alright?! If you want to see what I’ve been up to, have a look at the line-up pages on Larmer Tree’s website – I wrote/edited almost everything under the headings of Literature, Food and Workshops.

Now to continue my experiment where rather than just recounting stuff I’ve done, I edge perilously close to the territory of the Personal Essay. I’d like to have substantiated my musings by finding some of the actual sources I’ve read back in the hazy past, but I don’t have time and this is not intended to be remotely scientific. Soz. Regardless, here’s some thoughts on crying.

I’m a crier. I cry very easily, and very often. Here’s a small sample of the many things I’ve cried about as a fully fledged adult:

  • Finishing university
  • Homesickness
  • Physical illness
  • Having to cancel things because of illness
  • Exams
  • Nostalgia
  • Sad films
  • Happy films
  • Films of cats hugging kittens
  • Actual cats, especially when they sneeze
  • The bakeoff final
  • Tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Boredom
  • Insults
  • Compliments
  • The past
  • The future
  • The fact that the future will become the past
  • The present
  • Dropping something and picking it up and then dropping it again
  • Losing my phone
  • Trying to go to a dance class and not being able to find the venue, then cycling dejectedly back and forth past the same people before finally becoming too embarrassed and giving up (You may gather from the precision of this particular example that it happened quite recently and I’m somewhat bitter.)

The list could go on for a very, very long time, but you get the idea. I’ve cried at most of these things whilst being in a relatively normal mental state, i.e. not tipsy, bereaved, clinically depressed or doing finals. Of course, the human condition being what it is, ‘normal’ is not a particularly definable state, since it includes all of the crazy emotional hiccups that life tends to hurl violently into our day-to-day existence. But the point is that I could be said to involuntarily wear my emotions on my sleeve. It’s not just crying, either; I’ve also got a terrible habit of grimacing when I hear something I disagree with, which has got me into trouble before.

Rabbit woman

Sometimes life just gets to you. This is part of Sophie Ryder’s exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral.

I can’t predict when I’ll cry. There are times when I do shed a tear at the proper moment, such as when watching the first five minutes of Up, or during funerals, or after banging my head really hard. There are times like my graduation, where it would have been entirely normal to have a little sob, and where I remained solidly unmoved at the facial level, even though my emotions were in genuine turmoil. And then there are times when no matter how much I don’t want to cry, I simply can’t help it. It’s often an unpleasant surprise when I notice my eyes welling up and my cheeks burning. As fellow criers will know, being in a state of severe or even mild distress in public is unpleasant enough without also having to deal with the fact that as flood defences go, eyelids are hopelessly inadequate.

It’s frankly embarrassing, as an adult woman who considers herself largely competent and emotionally mature, to have so little conscious control over my tear ducts. And it’s incredibly irritating in disagreements where I want to appear rational. It’s even unhelpful in situations where deliberate crying might actually be considered a useful way to garner sympathy, like that moment on a train when you realise you’ve lost/mis-bought your ticket. This is because, although I’m no more capable of crying on purpose than I am of pushing the tears back in once they’ve escaped, it’s hard not to come across as manipulative when you do get the weepies at what looks like a ‘convenient’ moment.

So on one level you have me, in certain situations, crying when I don’t want to. But I want to go on a quick tangent, because the whole issue of control over emotional reactions fascinates me. Like many behaviours, it’s so much more complicated than the response of an individual in the moment.

Salisbury cathedral.jpg

Speaking of complicated, here’s Salisbury cathedral being big and gothic.

One factor at play is biology: crying sort of is a form of manipulation, even when it’s not a deliberate choice. Many theories suggest that emotional tears (as opposed to those caused by hayfever or poking yourself in the eye with a book) evolved as a way of indicating that we are vulnerable and need help. Incidentally, I’ve also read that this could have sprung from the original cleaning function of tears, because watery eyes can indicate illness or injury, and therefore vulnerability. Anyhow, we can’t help but respond to strong visible emotions in others, and tears often influence us in the direction of kindness. That’s why they’re an effective way of getting people to do what you want or, in the case of acting, to react empathetically to your character’s fictional pain.

The other important factor in ‘who cries and when’ is socialisation. Despite – or perhaps because of – their power and universality, tears are not often acceptable in British society, except on those special occasions of catharsis in which they’re officially considered appropriate (funerals, tragic art and so on). Children cry; adults don’t. Men, especially, don’t cry. Even I, as someone who cries a lot in my personal life, have never cried in a tutorial or at work. If it’s really important to Not Cry, I can usually maintain control for long enough to get out of the office/party/gunfight, although I’ll burst into tears afterwards and some poor soul in the inner circle of friends and family will have to mop up.

Skinny dead dude.jpg

Let’s take a brief interlude from all this talk of misery to look at an upsettingly graphic representation of death in Salisbury cathedral. Kudos to whichever sculptor thought this monstrosity was an appropriate commemoration of a presumably revered individual.

Clearly I do have some level of control because otherwise I’d weep indiscriminately whenever I saw a kitten or had a bad day, regardless of who was around. That control is not conscious, though; something in the back of my brain switches the taps off when I’m with people I don’t know well enough to be uninhibited around, but who do know me enough to remember me forever more as “that girl who cried”. I don’t actually know how many of you, the readers, have seen me in tears, but I’d guess that the smallish group with whom I’ve lived in close proximity will take it as a given that I cry easily, while the majority will have been entirely oblivious to this fact.

This shows up a social façade that we all have to differing degrees. I’ll unscientifically postulate that in the arena of crying, the façade is usually more extensive for men than women (because patriarchy hurts everyone etc), more important for politicians than for artists, and so on. I reckon we all have our crying threshold at different points on the emotion-scale, those points being determined partly by our personalities, partly by our upbringing, and partly by whether we fit into a social group that’s ‘allowed’ to cry. But on an individual level, there’s a degree of unpredictability to the crying-threshold which can make some of us (i.e. me) feel as if our ocular leakiness is random, annoying and uncalled-for.

My danger zone is around strangers. I cry astonishingly frequently on trains and planes, perhaps because I take a lot of journeys alone and they go hand in hand with goodbyes and stress. The latest crying-in-public incident happened a month ago, after my fourth job interview in a week. It went as well as these inherently difficult things can: I arrived on time, having intensively revised the subject of Me and Things I Have Done, did a passable but not outstanding job in the thing itself, and managed to get to Paddington on time without losing my phone or train ticket. I then proceeded to relax and get on the wrong train, which broke down, leaving me stranded in Newbury with the prospect of another 4 hours of travelling on top of the 7 I’d already completed. At this point, I cried profusely.

Train nightmare.jpg

If only.

We learn to contain our emotions in public places in order to save our own face, preserve others’ right to peacefully ignore us, and ensure that decorum is maintained at all costs. This makes it somewhat awkward when a stranger bursts into tears in a crowded train. To his credit, the man next to me did a sterling job of pretending not to notice or judge as I sobbed over the phone to my mum. When I hung up and it became apparent that I was not going to stop crying, he offered me a tissue and let me use his trainline app to work out my escape route. It was all very heartwarming, and I’ve been in many comparable situations. Although the line between intruding on someone’s personal affairs and ignoring someone in need is a blurry and awkward one, I’ve found that strangers are usually phenomenally kind and lovely when the need arises – especially when that need is made obvious by tears.

I don’t have any big overarching message here, by the way, or even any suggestions. It’s really just a vague lot of observations that have been coagulating in my head for a while, although if there is any take-home message, I guess it’s that we’re all vulnerable and it doesn’t hurt to remember that once in a while. A stiff upper lip is often useful, and I’m as guilty as the next woman of passing over people who look like they could use more investment than I’m willing or able to give. But when someone seems to need connection – whether that’s help in a crisis, or just a nice chat – a bit of friendliness can often be incredibly powerful. Crying is one of the few things that opens up a level of empathy that’s so often lacking in packed commuter trains and busy shopping centres. So actually, by being facially incontinent, I’m moving us towards a better, kinder, more progressive society. Or so I’d like to believe.

I see you thinking “Where, oh where, is the cartoon you semi-promised?!” Well, I said I’d been busy. There may be one someday. For now, here’s an excellent song about crying by Flight of the Conchords.

Let me know if you want more of this kind of thing, or if you wish I’d go back to the usual frivolity. Feedback, as always, is appreciated. But I warn you now that I’ll cry if it’s mean. Or if it’s really nice. Or if you send me an accompanying gif of a cat…

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7 thoughts on “Crying in public: about my overhydrated eyes

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