Saturday, March 12, 2016

People in richer cultures cry more

In 1906, the American psychologist Alvin Borgquist considered the fruits of his own global survey of explorers and missionaries, and asserted that “tears are more frequently shed among the lower races of mankind than among civilised people.” Borquist’s terminology may not have survived the 20th century, but the assumption of Western emotional dryness proved extraordinarily durable. ...

The modern era was seemingly content with this narrative. Then, in 2011, a team of Dutch clinical psychologists produced a study that consigned it to the out-tray of history. Ad Vingerhoets and his team examined data from 37 countries – the results of interviews in which respondents had told stories of their lachrymal lives. ... “Individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries,” they wrote, “tend to report to cry more often.” Although people enduring unenviable economic circumstances might be more plagued by depression, those from richer cultures shed more tears.

Australasian and American men emerged as the weepiest in the world; their Nigerian, Bulgarian and Malaysian counterparts the most dry eyed. Women in Sweden outcried those in Ghana and Nepal. The female populations of countries where gender equality was highest wept more copiously than those where it was lower. The evidence also showed – contrary to centuries of stereotyping – that the inhabitants of colder climates wept more frequently than those who lived in warmer zones. Tears, the study suggested, were not evidence of primitivism, as they had been for Darwin. They were not even good indicators of distress. Rather than being the habit of the wretched of the Earth, weeping appeared to be an indicator of privilege – a membership perk enjoyed in some of the world’s most comfortable and liveable societies. “If you live in really distressing and difficult circumstances, crying is a luxury,” says Dixon. “We know when we have been bereaved, we might be so shocked or traumatised that tears don’t come. So perhaps we should see tears as a sign of moderate grief, of bearable negative emotion. If you are enduring extreme distress or extreme hardship, that is not the time for tears.” ...

In 1890, the philosopher William James drew a distinction between the “crying fit” – a psychological event accompanied by “a certain pungent pleasure” – and the much less bearable sensation of “dry and shrunken sorrow”. Some experiences, it seems, are too bleak for tears. Former inmates of Nazi concentration camps have reported, sometimes guiltily, that they did not weep during their ordeal. At a war-crimes trial in May 2015, Susan Pollock, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, recalled her dry eyes as she watched her mother being despatched to the gas chamber. “I wasn’t crying,” she said. “I just wanted to recede into myself, never to be seen.”
--Matthew Sweet, 1843 Magazine, on the luxury of tears