Stigma | 19th July 2021 | Virtual Wire
On September 7, 2019, K. Sivan, the current secretary and ex-officio Chairperson of the Indian Space Research Organization, broke down after the Prime minister of India delivered a speech.
The Prime Minister was seen hugging and consoling K. Sivan. This sparked a debate among the netizens of India; a debate that made us realize that gender-specific criticisms for expressing emotions are still a practice, not just in India, around the world.
The discussion about the differences in the expressiveness of emotions across different countries, cultures and genders over time has accumulated an ample amount of evidence that shows differences in expression of emotions is not merely a problem of ‘gendering’ of emotions.
An emotion that is usually considered gender-specific and is often scrutinized with a magnifying glass by the popular media is sadness and a typical form of expression of this specific emotion, crying.
There is a model which connects crying to the country differences and personality rather than distress. That is, it is considered less shameful in countries where freedom of expression is appreciated and valued (van Hemert et al., 2011). This also presents an enthralling challenge to academicians and there has been a slowly increasing rate of studies that have looked into the variables that affect crying.
One such study, instead of taking a neutral tone, has connoted emotions as ‘powerful’ (anger) and ‘powerless’ (sadness, fear) (Fischer et al., 2004) with no mention of the criteria for classifying these emotions. This shows that emotions are still forced into a hierarchical structure and consequently certain emotions are highly stigmatized, at times, even in the scientific community.
Reiteration of the importance of crying is indispensable to have a fruitful discussion about the variables that determine the intensity and occurrence of this behaviour for any of these studies to have an outreach. Though scientific evidence has suggested positive implications of crying, the question of why crying yields us these benefits has remained untouched throughout the scientific literature and discussions.
An answer to this question can be arrived at by looking at one of the most common indicators of crying, tears. There are three types of tears with different functions: basal tears, reflex tears and emotional tears. Basal tears prevent our eyes from drying up and they drain through the nasal cavity, which explains why we have a runny nose after a good feast.
Reflex tears protect our eyes from harsh irritants like smoke and dust particles. Emotional tears are secreted when we ‘have a good cry. Shedding these tears seems to be the body’s way of ridding itself of the chemicals that build up in the body after a period of elevated stress. In fact, there is a study where reflex tears and emotional tears were measured (after peeling the onion and watching an emotional film).
In this study, it was found that reflex tears contained 98% water, unlike emotional tears which contained chemicals that indicated the present high level of stress and endorphins that reduce pain and improve mood (The Hindu Speaks On Scientific Facts, 2015).
In addition to being soothing and beneficial to our body during periods of experiencing intense emotions, crying helps us to gain social support. Compared to the expression of emotions through physical aggression, crying is less socially disruptive and a more efficient way to form social bonds.
With a growing number of studies focusing on the differences, an equal number of studies must aim to break the stigma around crying for the former studies to have any practical implications.