Are we drowning in a world of tears and cry babies?

TV3’s Hilary Barry gets emotional about the departure of colleague John Campbell.
TV3

TV3’s Hilary Barry gets emotional about the departure of colleague John Campbell.

A couple of months ago, the American writer Amy Bloom stood on a stage and told a story about her mother's funeral and how, to keep the peace, she'd divided the ashes into two identical $400 navy blue urns in matching Chinese brocade boxes, so that 50 per cent of mother now resides on Bloom's sideboard and the rest on her sister's bookshelf. 

It was a funny and not particularly morbid story, and perfectly told. Like most of the audience at the Auckland Writers Festival opening night event, I laughed in the right places, clapped loudly at the end, and settled in to hear the remaining seven writers' tales. 

Later in the foyer I compared notes with my friend Karen* and her husband, who'd been sitting a few rows back. We agreed Alan Cumming was sweet, that Helen Garner was cool. But the Amy Bloom story? Karen said she'd started crying in the first minute and didn't stop. 

That seemed curious to me. Almost weird. I skipped back through what I recalled of Bloom's performance and couldn't think of a single tear-jerking moment. Arguably, a funeral is a downbeat backdrop to a story, but this had been nigh on slapstick. I shrugged and almost forgot about it. 

Not quite though – because everywhere I looked people were weeping. TV3 newsreader Hilary Barry choked up after an item about the departure of her colleague John Campbell, barely managing to croak out a handover to Mike McRoberts: "I think Mike might have to read this..." 

Elsewhere on TV, Masterchefs salted soup direct from their lachrymal ducts, despairing Bachelor-hunters ruined their mascara and Dancing with the Stars contestants risked broken limbs on a dancefloor slick with tears. 

Then around the country, Fifa's Under-20 World Cup reminded us that soccer's an emotional game: a Hungarian lad called Attila Talabér wept buckets after scoring a horrible own goal for Serbia in extra time; the Panamanian coach teared up at his press conference; Spaniard Aarón Ñíguez trudged from the pitch in tears after losing to Italy. And then there was the public funeral service in Porirua for Jerry Collins, where his fellow former All Black Chris Masoe and others teared up as they spoke of their dead friend. 

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Just because everyone's crying in public doesn't mean everyone else is okay with it though. Even as Masoe talked about Collins, he joked that if Jerry could see him crying, he'd probably give him a black eye. After Barry's momentary lapse of composure, social commentator Michael Laws took to Facebook to criticise her lack of perspective in crying just because her colleague had turned down a lucrative contract, "when there is so much grief, heartache and tragedy" in the world. 

It's just as bad abroad: when British Nobel prize-winner scientist Tim Hunt incautiously moaned that part of the problem with having women in the science lab was that "when you criticise them, they cry", he was hardly endorsing a let-it-all-out-then-you'll-feelbetter approach to workplace stress. 

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So who's doing all the crying? Why? And are Michael Laws and Tim Hunt the morons everyone seems to think they are, or are they right in thinking weepers just need to dry up? 

WHAT ABOUT MASCARA?

I call my friend Karen to ask what makes her cry – apart from funny anecdotes about cremation. 

"Oh, big stuff and small stuff," says Karen. "My own feelings, other people's feelings. At weddings I cry. Not the priest bits, but more the human moments – bride and groom looking at each other, the kids, the handing over of the ring. I've cried in galleries in front of art works." 

Crying from happiness is slightly mysterious, though last year Yale psychologist Oriana Aragon published research suggesting happy tears – at reunions, at weddings, after sporting victories – are just as useful as unhappy ones, because they help restore 'emotional equilibrium' when emotions become so strong they threaten to become overwhelming. 

Karen also cries at funerals, even if it's someone she didn't really know. The sight of other distraught people is enough to set her off. A few years ago she scored a crazily high score on a reputable online empathy test and she suspects some of her tears can be blamed on her heightened sensitivity to others' emotions. 

But she also cries for herself, when feeling frustrated or powerless or under duress. She'll cry after a personal trauma (such as a recent car prang). She may cry if people are mean, but also if they are nice (such as when a couple of lovely women came to ask her if she was okay after the prang). She has cried at song lyrics and at poetry and at TV adverts. 

Is all this aquatic emotionality ever a problem? 

"Only if I'm wearing non-waterproof mascara," says Karen. Red postweeping eyes can be a nuisance, but if you want to appear powerful and self-composed in a hurry, you can always put on sunglasses for a bit. Apart from that, being a weepy person isn't a problem. 

Val Leveson, a counsellor at the Grief Centre in Auckland, agrees. "If tears run down your face when you hear something sad or go to a movie, that's normal. You're probably more in touch with your feelings than other people, so that's fine." 

American neuroscientist William Frey spent 15 years studying crying and concluded women cried 47 times a year on average, while men cried seven times. In Leveson's line of work she sees tears from men and women and from young and old. 

Crying can be cathartic, she says, a way of feeling your emotions, then getting on with things. Equally, it can be okay to hold back tears if you really need to, says Leveson. "Temporarily suppressing it is okay, because that's how we fit into the culture." You might "go into the loo and have a good cry then come out – there's nothing wrong with that". 

Shutting tears down completely isn't a good idea though, says Leveson. "Crying has its uses." 

ANTI-BACTERIAL TEARS

Emotions researcher Nathan Consedine, associate professor in the University of Auckland's department of psychological medicine, says ever since Darwin's day there have been attempts to explain the evolutionary value of emotional tears (as distinct from the basal tears that quietly keep your eyes lubricated all the time, and the reflex tears shed because you're chopping onions or have grit in your eye). 

One theory noted that when you're upset you pant heavily and dry out your throat's mucal membranes, so when you cry the tears draining down the back of your throat help relubricate your throat. One researcher placed a lot of store on tears' antibacterial properties, while another discovered tears contain high levels of stress-related hormones and chemicals, and reckoned this might explain why crying seems to relieve stress. 

But Consedine says the most useful way to look at crying is to think of it as a signal between people – a signal that happens to consist of the ducts that normally keep your eyes lubricated going into overdrive until a salty fluid spills from your eyesockets. 

"Like most evolved things, crying probably has its origins in a particular place, but it's been co-opted," says Consedine. "Evolution is notoriously a tinkerer, not a grand architect." 

In a baby, the signal of crying directly indexes an internal state – I'm in pain, I'm hungry, I'm tired, I can't reach something – and a parent will feel strongly motivated to do something about it. By the time you're an adult the signal and response are much more complex, but that core function of a request for assistance is still there. 

There have been some curious research findings about crying, says Consedine. One study found that if you played industrialstrength tear-jerkers (such as the death scene from 1979's The Champ) to depressed Westerners under laboratory conditions, they cried less than non-depressed Westerners. Even odder, the results were the exact opposite in people from Asian cultures. 

Even the idea that crying is always cathartic isn't always right, says Consedine. Experiments by Dutch clinical psychologist Professor Ad Vingerhoets involving subjects from 35 countries found people felt better after a good cry only in situations where it led to an offer of support, or if it resulted in the weeper developing insight into what was bothering them. Where those post-crying benefits were absent, crying actually left people feeling worse than before. 

The study also found crying was less cathartic when it involved suppression of crying, or shame about crying. In other words, letting it all out is only helpful if you're around people who think that letting it all out is the right thing to do. 

People from every culture cry, says Victoria University sociologist Ben Snyder, but the way we treat people who cry is less universal. Instead you get socially constructed norms "about what's allowed to be expressed, and when it's appropriate and when it's not". 

We still live in a highly gendered culture, says Snyder, where "men aren't supposed to cry and women are". When women are in male-dominated spaces – such as many workplaces – crying breaks that social norm. Snyder hasn't seen any figures specifically showing women do indeed cry more in the workplace, but even if they do, so what? "Crying is this timeless way for people to communicate and if men have trouble with that, that says more about a culture of male repression and a culture of silence around sadness among men, than it does about women." 

Western attitudes to crying seem to be moving in two opposite directions at once, says Snyder. Everyone is encouraged to open up and share their emotions more and parenting gurus tell us big boys do cry, but at the same time grief and excessive crying are being medicalised. 

The 2013 edition of the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), contained a new definition: "Prolonged (Complicated) Grief Disorder", which basically means grief that goes on too long. 

"The DSM-5 is saying you can grieve for a certain amount of time before it's not normal, and the time period has got shorter over the years as they've revised the DSM," says Snyder. 

In some workplaces, of course, crying is desirable. It's always impressive when an actor can tear up on demand, and I can't be the only journalist who has felt a perverse glow of pride when a reader says a story I've written made them cry, or more venal still, given a quiet inward cheer when an interview subject is moved to tears.

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AND ON TWITTER … 

In my hunt for more weepers, I tweeted asking people when they last cried and why. I got a couple of dozen responses, and though it's statistically meaningless, they way they divvy up is fascinating. 

The majority had been triggered by something not specifically personal to them: They had wept at the nuclear apocalypse movie Threads, at the revenge thriller The Salvation, at Game of Thrones, at John Campbell's final, sentimental TV3 show, or at that BP ad starring a bunny. 

The real world got them going too: a news story about a South Auckland mum working 18 hours a day to feed her kids, a blog about a children's ward, the national anthem at the Cricket World Cup in Melbourne. 

The triggers of others were personal: "Was drunk and my grandad had just died." "Earlier today when reading a sad email." "At the SPCA on the weekend because I wanted a kitten and my living situation means I can't have one." 

One unfortunate tweeted: "last night. when i was spewing. from food poisoning. TMI?" She then explained the underlying emotions: "Sad my mummy wasn't there, frustrated I ate all the scallops after the first one tasted dodgy & angry I had to cancel dinner plans." 

Others cried at music ("driving into late-afternoon sun – @lordemusic's 'A World Alone' came on and felt 16 again"), because of mental illness ("I was overwhelmed and have bipolar disorder") and for neurological reasons: "Since suffering a stroke I've become emotionally labile and cry watching the news every night – it's great!" 

So many reasons to cry, and there are many more. 

Late in my conversation with Karen she remembers another trigger she'd forgotten to mention. "Airports – seeing the emotions of people meeting. And that scene at the end of Love Actually where they filmed people in the arrivals hall." 

Can she explain why she cried at the book festival? 

Easy. On the surface, says Karen, Amy Bloom's yarn was about hijinks with cremation ashes, but really it was about family relationships and love, and beneath the comedic surface you could see the powerful feelings lurking below. 

Also, if you're going to have a cry, what better time to have tears streaming down your face than when you're safe in the embrace of a dark theatre audience, sitting next to your husband of 18 years. And yes, afterwards she did feel better. 

* This name has been changed to protect the self-consciously lachrymose. 

 - Sunday Magazine

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