I am 30 seconds into a discussion with an administrator at my son's daycare when I feel it coming. I have asked her to watch out for another boy who has been biting my son, but she brushes off my concerns. "It's just a phase," she tells me. "It will stop. Besides, the boy who bites is much smaller than your son."
In that moment when I feel ignored, dismissed, infuriated (because, really, what kind of argument is that? Do we dismiss shooters who are shorter than those they shoot?), my cheeks flush, and I start to cry. Mind you, I'm not sobbing. I'm not hiccuping for air. But it doesn't matter. I learned long ago that the sudden appearance of tears turns me into someone who is not to be taken seriously.
I'm a crier. Like many people, I cry at funerals and graduations or when I hear a sad story. The problem is that I also cry when I need to confront someone or when I am discussing anything with a foregone negative conclusion. And I am tired of my inability to contain my emotions; I am tired of feeling like a total mess. So I have decided: It's time to learn to control my tears.
Don't believe people who tell you that you should just "let it out." In everyday human interactions, crying isn't innocuous. While researching this story, I discussed the subject with everyone from academics to acquaintances and learned that there are two distinct groups of people: those who cry too much, and those who are annoyed by them.
Among the latter, the word that popped up most often was manipulative.
One researcher reasoned that if children turn on tears to defuse anger, adults surely do, too. And a friend told me about a coworker who seemed to cry to get people off her back. Their stories reminded me of my former boss, who once blurted out that he was tired of being "held hostage" by my tears in budget meetings. (I was eventually replaced by a woman whose neck got blotchy when she was uncomfortable. On meeting days, she wore turtlenecks.)
I'm not trying to be manipulative when I cry—at least not consciously. A 2011 Israeli study published in the journal Science
found that female tears contain an odorless chemical that appears to reduce testosterone levels in men; high levels of testosterone are associated with aggression, so one function of women's tears, it seems, could be to stop men who are on the attack. In those budget meetings where my boss would repeatedly ask me aggressively to justify my spending, perhaps I was only heeding nature's call.
The Israeli study could also explain the resentment my tears provoked, says Helen Fisher, PhD, an anthropologist at Rutgers University: "Once someone cries, the playing field is no longer level. With their testosterone reduced, men feel empathy when perhaps what they wanted to do was get angry."
But no matter the motivation behind tears, they are rooted in sincere emotion, says William H. Frey II, PhD, a neuroscientist at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and the author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears
: "I have never been able to get subjects to cry without an authentic emotional trigger." (To create tears in the lab, he has had to resort to screenings of heartbreakingly sad movies like The Champ
.) You can't fake tears, which is probably why they're so hard to turn off.
Next: What you can do to stop the tears