I WENT TO A nostalgic showing of the noted tearjerker Beasts of the Southern Wild recently. In one of the film’s many emotional climaxes, a father tells his daughter, with his dying breaths, “No crying”. From the back of the cinema, a woman issued a single brazen wail. The proverbial floodgates had been opened. The woman’s crying started a chain reaction, much as when someone spews on a plane, and within seconds every woman in the house was weeping. I have seen the footage of mourners in North Korea after Kim Jong Il died, falling to their knees and sobbing over Dear Leader departed, but that was nothing. The women in the cinema dissolved. The men in the cinema sat quietly.
I’m always surprised when people talk about crying as though it were something tactical. I wish crying were
just another tool in my manipulation tool kit, right between blowjobs and passive aggression, that could be deployed at will. And maybe there really are adult women out there who go into negotiations and arguments thinking, “If I cry, I’ll get my way”. But I don’t know any of those women, and anyone who thinks tears are a strategy has never seen me crying. My face turns very red and stays that way for four to six hours. I fluctuate between low satanic rattling and primal sobs that carry all the pain of my female ancestors. Snot is inevitable. Cogent speech is impossible. Mine are not Hollywood tears, characterised by a single rivulet sliding gently down one cheek before trickling seductively into my heaving bosom. Nothing about my crying elicits sympathy. For me, and for every other woman I’ve spoken to on the subject, crying is just something that happens. And in the right circumstances, like in a dark cinema full of women who are also weeping, crying feels really good.
I don’t think it’s my job to suppress my tears. Ever since high school, women wizened by years in the workforce have told me that I should never cry. If men don’t see tears as manipulation, I came to understand, they see them as a sign of weakness. Writer Rebecca Traister has described a similar revelation. “They don’t know you’re furious,” Traister recalls a female coworker telling her once after she burst into tears in the office.
“They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.” Now, having cried in front of a lot of men – in the office, over drinks, and in bed – I no longer believe that. I think men understand when a woman is crying out of fury, frustration or a sudden awareness of the mortality of all things. It’s just the prescribed responses to tears that are condescending.
I’d argue (tearfully) that the worst thing a man can say to a woman when she’s crying is “Shhhhhhhhhhhhh”. I had a shhhhhhhhhhhhh-ing boyfriend once. If I began to cry during an argument, he would pull me in with his stupid manly arms and press my head to his stupid manly chest, and then he would ruin it all by shhhhhhhhhhhhhing me. I would indeed stop crying. But I didn’t stop crying because I was soothed. I stopped because my hate-fire at being silenced and talked to as if I were a child dried up all the tears. Most of the vocabulary we use to comfort crying adults is the same vocabulary we use to comfort crying toddlers. While it’s nice to hear “There, there” from my mother when I’m crying – partly because I’m decidedly not her equal and partly because I know that comforting me is giving her a Munchausen-byproxy thrill – it’s infuriating to hear it from a peer. And it’s especially infuriating to hear it from a male peer, because often I’m already uncertain about whether he sees me as an equal.
The proper response to crying depends on where you are and the type of tears you’re dealing with. Sad tears are the easiest. If I’m crying because someone has died (onscreen or off), because I didn’t get the job I wanted, or because you just dumped me, a long hug will suffice. The best thing you can do is offer up your manly arms and manly chest as a muscle cocoon where I can cry, shielded from the world. Every pectoral workout you’ve ever done has been in preparation for this moment.
Rage tears are tougher. If I’m angry – at you or at the world at large – I don’t want soothing words or pity, and I certainly don’t want advice. I just want to explain, through tears, what is bothering me. I have been blessed to witness one man crying in front of another man. The three of us were drinking, the conversation took a heavy turn, and one of my friends began to cry as he described something he was frustrated about. (I started to cry, too. My other friend took a long sip of his beer, without breaking eye contact, and said nothing. He didn’t acknowledge the tears across the table, and he definitely didn’t shhhhhhhh anyone. He just let my friend talk, nodding when appropriate.
Not everyone has the steely nerves required to wordlessly watch someone else cry. In this way and this way only, crying actually is infantile: it’s very difficult not to take action when you see tears, especially when they’re tears that you have a role in. So acknowledge the tears by passing along a tissue box, but then say nothing. All I want when I’m crying hot tears of rage is assurance that I’m still being listened to, even when what I’m saying is “Hnrrrrngahhhhnurrrrr”
“IT’S FINE , GO ON”
How to handle tears – women’s or men’s – at work
Rarely will you witness women crying in the office, but it’s happening all around you. Women are extremely adept at finding quiet places to sob at work. If I’m about to cry sad tears, I immediately proceed to my designated crying spot, a single-occupant bathroom on another floor. If you come upon a woman in transit to her office crying spot, do not stop her. It’s perfectly acceptable to pretend you haven’t noticed. But every now and then, usually in a tense meeting, angry tears come without warning. If this happens, it is more important than ever to keep listening. For four years at my last job, every time I had an important meeting with my boss, I would weep. When tears started, I would inevitably apologise, and he would say, “It’s totally fine, go on”. As soon as I knew that I wasn’t making him uncomfortable (“It’s totally fine”) and that he was interested in what I was saying (“go on”), I would stop crying. – LL