Daily Sociology Diary: Tears as a Social Phenomenon

Daily Sociology Diary: Tears as a Social Phenomenon
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Written by Cornelia Mayr

November marks the point of the year when the cold creatures arrive. Fields, buildings and streets are covered in heavy fog, blurring the city like an old painting. The trees look like skeletons, and the dawn chill covers the grass. It’s the time when the bitter wind bites our skin and blows cold, winter air into our eyelashes. Our eyes water because it’s cold.

Tears lubricate our eyes when they are cold and bright; wash away smoke, dust or other irritants; and protects us from foreign particles that enter the eye environment. Although some animals have the physiological ability to produce tears, humans are the only creatures whose tears can be emotionally induced.

The ability to cry because of emotional stress or pain shows how tears are a social phenomenon. Whether tears come from grief, pity, regret, joy, laughter, anger, or rage, they can act as social glue. In fact, tears can be social not only in their origin but also in their effects.

We can see the social aspects of tears in the way we react to tears, both ourselves and those around us. By asking “how do people react when they see someone tearful,” Ad Vingerhoets puts these “affect” processes in a sociological context by looking at how people understand tears.

In his book, Vingerhoets talks about the mystery of tears as something that emerges from the mutual relationship between the caller and the observer. He observed several cases in which “tears lead to caregiving, social bonding, or a reduction in aggression” (p. 116). It’s rare to see someone cry when others ignore them. As dramaturgical teammates, according to Erving Goffman, many of us would take it upon ourselves to calm the person down and keep them “in face”—to restore the disordered order to a “semblance of normalcy.”

However, Vingerhoets concluded that the small droplets that run down our cheeks do not always “guarantee positive reactions from others” (p. 116). In particular, he suggests that negative responses, such as withdrawing from a tearful person, can occur when those tearful eyes are used strategically to manipulate others. This appears to be an example of impression management when manipulating social situations. By crying “crocodile tears”, people can intentionally mislead others. Nevertheless, tears are methods of ‘dramatic perception’, and we must interpret what those drops of water are in someone’s eyes when we seek to understand the meaning others attach to their expressions.

Alfred Schütz can offer an interpretation of the meaning (foreign understanding) and to help deconstruct the complex intersubjectivities that emerge in the face of tears. According to Schütz, people rely on many interpretive tools to infer the meaning of others. We use and apply these tools by observing another’s body as it moves, speaks, gestures, makes sound, or sheds tears. We then try to infer what meaning is given to the person’s utterances by engaging in a personal act of reflection and consider what meaning we would give in the context of similar experiences. “Everything I know about your conscious life is really based on my knowledge of my lived experience,” Schütz (1967, p. 106) would say. In other words, we try to align our intentionality with the intention of other people and feel their stream of consciousness.

If we look at tears from a phenomenological perspective, we can see how people objectively and subjectively experience and construct the meaning of tears. Following Schütz, we would never be able to directly access someone’s subjective experience. We can understand another’s act of crying only on the basis of our subjective experience, our “stock of knowledge”.

Additionally, weeping tears bring some form of symbolic expression that can prompt others to interpret and “fix” the situation, whether those drops of salty fluid are of human will or self-inflicted. As the only bodily fluid that does not cause disgust or revulsion, tears bring about human connection and, as a signal seen by others, can facilitate, disrupt, or challenge the order of interaction.

In most cases, such an expression is usually judged by whether tears are appropriate. Think about the last time you burst into tears and all the times you had to hold back the tears that were streaming down your cheeks. What brought you to tears? When and where did it happen? Were you alone or with others?

At the crossroads of many dichotomies such as culture/nature, public/private, and masculinity/femininity, many of us perceive tears in terms of social norms and public rules. We may hold back tears because according to social conventions, letting tears flow in public is shameful, considered unmanly, and shows vulnerability or weakness. Conversely, shedding tears can benefit our health. A key question for sociologists may be how people deal with the meaning and significance of tears.

Whether you let the tears flow or wipe them away, they fall in interesting new directions that allow us to theorize and understand the subjective interpretation of reality and social behavior. Tears are more than just a passive, physiological response to cold and harsher conditions or a way to keep the eyes hydrated. Ultimately, life brings us all to tears; how it begins and ends with tears.

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