November 28, 2022

Tears as Social Phenomenon

Cornelia Mayr Author Photo By Cornelia Mayr

November marks the point in the year when the cold beings to set in. Fields, buildings and streets are blanketed in heavy fog, blurring the city like an old painting. Trees look like skeletons and dawn frost carpets the grass. It is the time when biting winds gnaw on our skin and whip chilly, wintry air into our eyelashes. Our eyes tear up, because it's freezing.

Tears keep our eyes lubricated when it is cold and blustery; wash away smoke, dust or other irritant substances; and protect us from foreign particles that enter the eye’s environment. Though some animals do have the physiological ability to produce tears, humans are the only creatures whose tears can be triggered emotionally.

The capacity to burst into tears due to emotional stress or pain shows us how tears are a social phenomenon. Whether tears stem from grief, remorse, regret, joy, laughter, anger or fury, they can function as a social glue. In fact, tears can be social not only in their origins but also in their effects.

We can see the social aspects of tears in the way that both we as individuals and those around us react to tears. Asking “how people respond behaviorally when they see someone in tears,” Ad Vingerhoets put these processes of “affect” in a sociological context by considering how people make sense of tears.

In his book, Vingerhoets talks about the mystery of tears as something that emerges out of the mutual relationship between the crier and the observer. He observed several instances when “tears result in caregiving, social bonding, or a reduction in aggression” (p. 116). It is rare to see someone breaking down in tears being ignored by others. As dramaturgical team-mates, Erving Goffman would argue, many of us would step in to soothe the person and to keep he or she “in face” – to restore the disrupted order to “normal appearance.”

However, Vingerhoets concluded that tiny droplets sliding down our cheeks do not always “guarantee positive reactions from others” (p. 116). In particular, he suggests that negative responses, such as withdrawal from someone who is shedding tears, may occur when those watery eyes are used strategically for manipulating others. This seems to be an example of impression management which entails the manipulation of social situations. Through weeping “crocodile tears” people can intentionally mislead others. Nonetheless, tears are techniques for a “dramatic realization,” and we must interpret what those water drops in someone’s eyes are as we seek to understand the meaning given by others to their expressions.

Alfred Schütz can offer a meaning interpretation (Fremdverstehen) and help deconstruct the complex inter-subjectivities which take place when facing tears. According to Schütz, people rely on a great deal of interpretative tools to infer the meaning of others. We use and apply these tools when observing another’s body as it moves, speaks, gestures, creates sound or sheds tears. We then try to infer the meaning given to the person’s expressions by engaging in a private act of reflection and consider the meaning we would give amidst similar experiences. “Everything I know about your conscious life is really based on my knowledge of my own lived experiences,” Schütz would say (1967, p. 106). In other words, we try to align our intentionality with those of other people and sense their stream of consciousness.

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

Having said that, crying tears brings in certain forms of symbolic displays that can evoke others to interpret and “fix” the situation, whether those drops of salty liquid are produced beyond one’s own control or are caused by the individual him- or herself. As the only body liquid that does not cause disgust or repugnance, tears trigger human connection and as a signal that others can see, they can facilitate, disrupt or challenge interaction order.

In most cases, this kind of expression is mostly judged depending on whether tears are appropriate. Think about the last time you burst out into tears and all the situations when you had to hold back your eyes from gushing tears down your cheeks. What brought you to tears? When and where did it happen? Were you alone or with others?

Laying at the juncture of many dichotomies, such as culture/nature, public/private and masculinity/femininity, most of us make sense of tears in terms of social norms and public rules. We may stifle tears because social conventions tell us that letting your tears flow in public is shameful, considered unmanly, and display vulnerability or weakness. Conversely, our health might benefit from shedding tears. The pivotal question for sociologists might then be how people deal with the sense and meaning of tears.

Whether you let your tears flow or wipe them off, they drop in exciting new directions for theorizing and understanding subjective interpretation of reality and social behavior. Tears are more than just a passive, physiological reaction to cold and harsher conditions, or a way to keep our eyes moistened. Eventually life brings us all to tears; as it starts and ends with tears.


It's really good article! I understand more about tears after reading this post.

I feel that there are many actors who abuse their tears to please others.

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