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Katrina Onstad

The politics of crying: Why do we hide our tears? Add to ...

Recently, while adjusting my sweat socks at the gym, I thought I heard crying. I peered over the lockers, not uncreepily, and my theory proved right: A woman crying! Nearby! Human suffering at close range – should I intervene?

Then I shifted gears: Get a grip, lady. We’ve all got problems. Don’t bring down my pre-spinning-class energy!

Before I could return to my original position, a friend of hers – or a very comfortable stranger – arrived and commenced the requisite back rubbing and murmuring. “Get it out,” she said.

But “getting it out” may be pointless, as crying, it seems, doesn’t make you feel better. The Journal of Research in Personality published data from a study of 97 Dutch women who monitored their crying habits in a journal for three months. After a crying jag, 61 per cent of women recorded that their mood was neither improved nor worsened; only 30 per cent felt better.

This wee study is at odds with many that have come before it. Other research suggests that crying for emotional reasons (as opposed to crying because spin class hurts) can release stress-defeating chemicals and endorphins, those calming, natural painkillers.

But I don’t think we cry to feel good; rather, we cry to feel anything. Crying means letting loose the tightly held control that’s the engine of daily life. In Broadcast News, a driven network executive played by Holly Hunter regularly shuts her door, unplugs her phone (this is 1987) and weeps. Finished, she plugs in the phone and returns to her chaotic workplace, which rotates around the axes of objectivity and emotional reserve. Those few minutes of crying aren’t about endorphins but retreat, from self-possession, social expectation, power – all the constricting garments of adulthood. The feeling she’s after isn’t happiness, but release.

The door is shut, however, because crying in public is taboo. Strategically, conventional wisdom goes, it’s not a good move to show vulnerability at work. Crying is emotion, which is the opposite of thinking. And if you’re not thinking, then you’re stupid – and not so promotable. In a cutthroat professional milieu, you are either a shark or a snivelling minnow. Cry and be eaten.

This philosophy is aimed squarely at women, of course. Martha Stewart, as she booted a fired apprentice out the door, called out: “Women in business don’t cry, my dear.” Crying can damage one’s credibility, and credibility is already a tough acquisition for many women in male-dominated professions.

Crying men have a little more leeway. Bill Clinton knew how to work his tear ducts – or at least a quivering lip – to his advantage. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is a prodigious weeper. Perhaps because it’s still rare, a man displaying emotion can deepen his public image, gesturing toward reservoirs of feeling. But for Bill’s wife, one teary appearance in 2008 revealed a mass of confusing attitudes around women crying. While some female voters responded to a humanized Hillary Clinton, TV pundits jeered at the bawling chick who couldn’t take it in the big leagues. Her crying didn’t expand the public’s impression of her; it reduced it. In other words: “What is she – on her period?”

In light of this reality, I have tried over the years to keep my workplace crying under wraps, with a modicum of success (note: I now work from home). In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes about occasionally fleeing to her office to cry over the elusive work-life balance: “Of course I’m not supposed to admit that there is triannual torrential sobbing in my office, because it’s bad for the feminist cause. … But I have friends who stay home with their kids and they also have a triannual sob, so I think we should call it even. I think we should be kind to one another about it.”

Still, she keeps her door shut – and maybe this is the problem: By pretending we don’t do it, we elide the kindness that crying elicits.

Bronwen Wallace, the late Canadian poet, wrote an article describing her mortification when she found herself crying as an Arts Council jury member reviewed an application on the theme of sexual abuse. She worried that her public crying had affected the outcome (the artist got the grant) and then wondered what was wrong with that: Is rationality “the result of a truly irrational fear of emotion and its place in any decision-making process? What’s wrong with emotions...?”

By stigmatizing crying, we pretend that emotion doesn’t inform our choices. The relentless push for control, the fear that expressing feeling will taint the public image, keeps compassion at a distance, too. It’s why I didn’t rush forth to my crying gym-mate or why certain political decisions seem so chillingly inhumane. But after hearing the gym crier, I spent the rest of my morning buoyed by an oddly alive sensation. Her crying made me alert to fellow feeling.

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