Do You Cry in Public or in Private?

Published on July 13, 2012


“If you've never eaten while crying you don’t know what life tastes like.”

I came across this saying by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe the other day and thought that it would be a nice starting point to talk about the subject of crying. It’s not that Goethe cried a lot; however, during the 18th and 19th centuries he wrote in the genre of theology, literature and drama, we can assume that he was familiar with the ranges of human emotion. Goethe, like so many others, was telling us that it is useful and even necessary to cry. But, is it better to cry in private or public? A new study by the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ehime Prefectural University of Health Sciences in Japan examines the effects of adults crying in public settings and the effect it has on the crier and the witnesses.

The study, titled “Psychological effects of emotional crying in adults: events that elicit crying and social reactions to crying” surveys the psychological benefits and costs of adults crying in private versus in the presence of others. The subjects--all female nurses—were asked to rate their experience of several feelings such as catharsis, positive attitude and empathy and social support after a crying episode related to the most their most negative memory.

Catharsis---the sense of release and cleansing—was experienced by several of the nurses, but most often reported by those that had cried in private. Unconstrained by the social norms of dignity, they were free to express their agony vocally and bodily without reservation. On the other hand, those who cried in front of others did not experience the same degree of catharsis. Instead, they associated such occurrences with “criticism and slander from others.”

The study does not consider whether the onlookers actually made such negative associations, but it is important to know what the nurses believed others thought about them. This attitude reminds me of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s stanza:

“A crust of bread a corner to weep in
A minute to smile and hour to weep in
A paint of joy to a peck of trouble
And never to laugh but the moans come double
And that is Life-"

As to empathy, crying in solitude has consequences, according to the study. Empathy is the feeling that someone is able to identify with you because they have experienced similar circumstances. The discovery here is that while the nurses were able to have an uninhibited emotional release in private, they still felt as isolated and alone in their grief as they did before they cried.

Supporting the Japanese study’s findings, another study that examined medical and nursing students in their final year of study found that most subjects preferred to cry in private. The medical students preferred to cry in private outside of the hospital, while nurses were more likely to cry inside the hospital’s nurse room. Interestingly, the study also concluded that the nurses were more inclined to talk with another nurse about their crying afterwards. Since the study included men and women, it may offer insight on the gender differences in how public crying is perceived. Further, it tells us that as far as it concerns medical professions, nurses are more likely to feel like coworkers are able to empathize with them.

This is important to note, because with regard to long-term management of intractable issues, for instance, communal understanding and support have proven beneficial. This is part of the premise of talk therapy, not only that you feel better after discussing your problem with someone, but more importantly, the very act of talking about the issue changes your brain similar to the way that a pharmaceutical might. This claim, by Nobel Laureate and psychiatrist Eric C. Kandel, excludes incidences of disease where there is strong evidence of anatomical or biochemical abnormalities.

Dr. Kandel explains to Charlie Rose during an interview about the subject “ When you and I have a conversation, it changes our brains. It’s a biological interaction…. In addition, the value of psychotherapy, I’m going to say something that’s a little bit provocative — it’s the therapy but it’s also fundamentally the consistent, the supportive, and the healthy relationship the individual giving the psychotherapy provides…”

Some of us cry more than others. One study does a thorough job calculating the who, where and when of crying 1:

88.8% feel better after a cry
77% of crying takes place at home
70% of criers make no attempt to hide their crying
40% of people weep alone
39% of crying occurs in the evening, the most popular time compared with morning, afternoon, and night (16, 29 and 17 per cent respectively)
20% of bouts of crying last longer than 30 minutes
8% go on for longer than one hour
47: average number of times a woman cries each year
7: annual number of crying episodes for a man
6-8pm is the most common time for crying

Of course, whether we cry in public, private or at all can be for many different reasons. Illness—personal or otherwise-- physical pain and anxiety are the obvious ones, but we also cry from joy and anger and there are even studies examining why some people cry after suffering a stroke. Regardless of the reason, the Ehime Prefectural concludes that while there are more benefits to crying alone, there are also more costs.

What do you think? Until next time, KEEP TALKING!




Category(s):Empathy, Grief, Loss, Bereavement

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”