Tears Are a Luxury Item

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Photo: Vintage Images/Getty Images

For a time, it seems, Charles Darwin became sidetracked by his attempts to understand crying. In his efforts to study the roots of emotion, he turned to zoologists and his friends about weeping: Did monkeys cry? Did Africans cry as much as Europeans? Were there different common instigators of tears between cultures? Darwin’s notes seemed to indicate a trend, writes Matthew Sweet in an article for 1843: People in colder climates were less likely to cry.

Because this was the 19th century, some observers thought the reason why people in warmer climes cried more was “primitivism.” There are, obviously, many things wrong with that assessment, but more recently some researchers took it upon themselves to investigate cultural differences in what makes people break down and cry. Their 2011 study found that there are definite cultural differences in what makes us break down. “Individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries tend to report to cry more often,” the team wrote. And while you might think women are the weepiest, thanks to Hollywood and gender stereotypes, the study showed a lot of criers follow distinct trends: Australian and American men cried the most; Nigerian, Bulgarian, and Malaysian males were the least likely to shed a tear. Swedish women were crying buckets; their Ghanaian and Nepali counterparts, not so much. In fact, countries with the greatest gender equality reported crying more overall than those with less parity.

And that’s where researchers concluded something extraordinary about the socioeconomics of crying. “Rather than being the habit of the wretched of the Earth, weeping appeared to be an indicator of privilege – a membership perk enjoyed in some of the world’s most comfortable and liveable societies,” Sweet writes. So war, destitution, poverty, other equally horrible things in less privileged societies don’t bring on tears, yet having a bad day at work in the Western world somehow does? As the researchers theorized, when you’re a citizen of a war-torn country dealing with some pretty grim life-or-death situations, you realize crying isn’t really going to get you anywhere; also, there’s too much to do.

Sweet expands on that:

In countries visited by war or famine, the observation might not seem so counterintuitive. Dorte Jessen, head of the Jordan arm of the World Food Programme’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, has spent over a decade looking into the tearless eyes of those in the direst need. During the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa, she was based in the sprawling refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, 60 miles from the border with Somalia. Early in her assignment, she recalls, she watched a mother and her two young children receiving emergency rations – sachets containing a sweet mixture of peanut paste, vegetable fat and cocoa. Just a few steps from the distribution point, the mother ripped open one of the packets and handed it to her oldest child. “They didn’t talk or express any emotion. They just kept walking,” Jessen notes. “Once you are past a certain point of exhaustion, there is simply no energy to spare to get emotional.”

Interestingly, biology may help explain this divide, too. Crying has long been thought to be a biological response to sadness or frustration or anger; you feel any of those emotions, and your eyes well up. But in societies that are “comfortable,” crying might work the other way: You see something that is upsetting and then you cry. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind the next time you want to cry over how nasty your day was. In a way, tears are a luxury item.

Tears Are a Luxury Item