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Shifting Stigmas: The Act of Crying in Public

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Jimmy Dugan firmly established that there’s no crying in baseball. But what about in public? In New York City, at some point or another you’re going to encounter a crying person—in fact, you could even be the crier.

A few weeks ago, I boarded the subway for a short trip uptown. It was the middle of the day and the car was relatively empty, so I grabbed a seat, put my Metrocard away, and quickly found myself absorbed in detangling my headphones from the mess in my bag. After a few minutes, I felt the distinct sensation of being watched. Looking up, I met the eyes of man who was clearly distraught. It took me a second to realize that he had been crying. His cheeks were red and blotchy and the still wet splotches on his blue t-shirt suggested that I had interrupted some private grief. His hand was pressed tightly over his mouth, and as we regarded one another, his eyes began to fill with tears once more.

What do I do? I asked myself. Apparently, nothing—the other passengers in the car did their best to avoid looking at him, busying themselves with eReaders, Angry Birds, and even a good old-fashioned newspaper. But it was too late for me to pretend I hadn’t seen. He knew. And as he roughly brushed away his tears and ran his hands through his hair to feign some sort of normalcy, I was struck by how quickly the moment changed. He went from being vulnerable to utterly guarded in a matter of seconds, adopting the aloofness that New York City commuters wear so expertly. There was no embarrassment or trace of shame in his face, however he may have felt inside. And he nodded to me slightly as stood to exit at his stop, his cheeks still flushed and his shirt still marked by damp spots.

The City That Never Sleeps is also a City That Cries On-the-Go When Necessary: on the subway or the commuter rail, in a park, or while walking down the street, do these private moments become a part of the public experience in part because there aren’t enough private spaces? If this is the case, then why does public crying still feel, well, private?

New York City is saturated with physical bodies, but it is also true that overall we can rarely be alone with ourselves. We keep the company of work and personal responsibilities and obligations, moral sensibilities, and social codes—and thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology, we travel with our social networks as well. There is no shortage of voices instructing, berating, reminding, suggesting, nagging, cajoling, and liking. In the midst of this noise, we have gotten used to being “alone together”:

We are private right out in public, and our devices facilitate this self-containment and public erasure—cell phones, smart phones, laptops, iPods allow us to engage in a social world that is happening elsewhere. It would seem we have better places to “be” than where we are—online, for example (1).

The concept of “alone together” suggests social isolation, but it also helps transform the public space into a private one, which then shifts the social codes that might be observed otherwise.

I didn’t fully understand this until it happened to me. Weeks of seemingly endless tension had finally come to an end. And partly out of relief and partly out of frustration, I found myself staring blearily out of the window on my commute home. The response within my personal network—though supportive—was decidedly mixed. Some were concerned over what they viewed was an exhibition of vulnerability and others felt it created an obligation for witnesses to respond. Still others were alarmed that no one offered assistance—like the man in the blue shirt, I was left alone until the very end.

Tears of joy aside, we typically associate crying with grief and sadness, and anger, fear, and pain (2). Crying implies something is wrong—that we are distressed and in need of assistance. These are socially determined definitions. After all, crying is a behavior which can suggest an emotion, but the two are not intimately bound. Responses to feelings of grief, sadness, anger, fear, and pain are often culturally and contextually determined—given the same situation, both utter despair and stoicism may be appropriate.

It has also been a heavily stigmatized act beyond childhood. And even children are quickly taught when and where crying is acceptable: On the playground after you’ve fallen from the swings, for example, but not the supermarket (3). Crying in public means judgment:

Shame at being seen crying comes in to arrest its course and to fortify the effort at self-control. Seclusion is more often sought, while distinctions begin to be formed between shameful and legitimate cries; physical pain must be born without crying, while the sympathetic expression of grief is undiminished. One says, “I cry less because I am accustomed to disappointment.” The discipline of society brings about an increased power of control (4).

So witnesses likely face a degree of uncertainty as to how to react: they should offer help, but they shouldn’t acknowledge the act because it shouldn’t happen. To offer comfort or not? What is the depth of grief? Is someone hurt? These are the sorts of questions that may factor in whether a response of some sort is ultimately necessary. And as they wrestle with these questions, the transience of the experience of shared space provides little time to make a decision. Ultimately, this means the crier is left alone. So the privacy of the act preserved is in part by the lack of intervention.

But could the discipline of society also be shifting? As we practice being alone together, the devices we carry increase awareness of the assortment of voices that participate in our day. We know what they mean. Do these items serve as reminders that we are more closely connected to potential sources for joy and pain, and thus make the expression of public emotions more acceptable? If we are more aware of the possibility that we may get news that could cause us to cry in public, are we less likely to consider it shameful or pass judgment?

We regularly use an assortment of tools to create private spaces: we wield reading material and portable music players and media devices as a means of entertainment, yes, but also as a means of defining spaces that are “ours,” even while we have to contend with being in close quarters. It seems that these tools may also be redefining how we can expect to use those spaces as well.

 

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgCited:
Borgquist, Alvin. (1906). Crying. The American Journal of Psychology, 17 (2), 149-205

Ross, C., & Mirowsky, J. (1984). Men Who Cry Social Psychology Quarterly, 47 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3033942

Sadler, Brook (2011). “Anxiety, Existence, and the Coffeehouse,” in Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate.  Scott F Parker and Michael Austin, eds. Wiley Blackwell

 

Notes:

1. Sadler (2011): 104.

2. Borgquist (1906): 152.

3. Ross and Mirowsky (1984): 144.

4. Borgquist (1906): 157.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. aidel 3:06 pm 07/13/2011

    Interestingly, I think people are more comfortable crying in an anonymous public space (like a subway) — or seeing someone cry — than they are crying/seeing someone cry in a place where crying is not expected and people know you — like crying at work.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 3:52 pm 07/14/2011

    I think you’re right Aidel. Once familiarity is introduced to the situation, it seems to magnify the obligation to respond. Crying shifts the dynamics of the relationship – when one exists – because it suggests a need. It is far easier for many to ignore the needs of someone they don’t know, particularly if they can tell themselves that someone else may handle the situation or that the person is out of their reach (e.g., got off the train, walked away, etc.) When you actually know someone – even in passing – the social responsibility one feels to act can be immense.

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