As with so many other things in life, Kim Kardashian is the gold standard against which we measure the ugliness of our crying faces. Among Kim’s endless portfolio of magazine covers, red carpet looks and high-fashion shoots is a collection of equally popular photos of the celebrity in hysterics — mouth agape, makeup still intact (thank God). The most iconic image of the crying Kardashian comes from an episode of “Kourtney and Kim Take New York” when she laments her failed marriage to Kris Humphries. This screencap is now purchasable in nearly every form, with Kim’s floating head appearing on t-shirts, earrings, phone cases, pillows and clothing.
Of course, Kim had no choice in the matter; she hasn’t known a private moment since Keeping Up with the Kardashians started airing in 2007. Yet many of us choose to forego our own privacy and take photos of ourselves crying, catapulting them onto our Instagram, Tumblr, or Facebook accounts. On the night before our college graduation, my friend Ben, with tears streaming down his face, asked, “Can we take more crying selfies?” Millennial vanity would be a trite explanation for this phenomenon; by making our grief public, we let ourselves and others know grief is not felt in isolation.
Crying in public becomes less acceptable as you grow older. This is one of the things I envy babies for most: It’s permissible for them to wear pajamas in public, to fall asleep anywhere, and to cry at any moment. But big girls don’t cry — except at the grocery store, at the bank, or on the subway. Since most of city-dwellers’ lives are spent in public, and there’s only so long you can hold it in, whatever it is, cities are breeding grounds for public displays of emotion. A hotel in Tokyo has found a way to capitalize on this problem, offering crying rooms stocked with sad-girl necessities: tissues, eye masks, make-up remover and an array of melancholy movies.
Still, New York City distinguishes itself as the capital for crying in public. The New York Times, Gothamist, and New York magazine have published ruminative Op-eds and comprehensive crying guides complete with gloomy playlists on the subject, providing tips for repeated offenders (always carry sunglasses) and suggesting places that might offer temporary respite for the tearful (parks, department stores). A Tumblr account called Crying New York has dedicated an entire website to the cause. Stare at yourself dramatically in a city puddle, the blog’s founder, Kerry O’Brien, suggests, while the daring may opt for weeping atop a double-decker tour bus in the rain. Cry on the S Train; it only has two stops. The world is your fainting couch, that free tabloid, your handkerchief. One day New York might catch up with Tokyo.
When a woman is seen crying in public, a few things might happen to her. If she’s lucky, she’ll be ignored. Though we often lament the stone-faced New Yorker, intent on getting to their destination with minimal human interaction, here is where they shine: They leave the crying person alone. In a moment where stress, frustration, sadness — or, in many cases, all three — reach a pressure point, the last thing we want is to have to assure a crowd of strangers, we’re okay, we’re okay, we’re okay. (For better or for worse, men who cry in public are nearly invisible, since society doesn’t know what to do with crying men anyway.)
If, like me, the crying woman is unlucky, she’ll be swarmed by kindhearted strangers. These are the same people who say “sorry” when they bump into you on the sidewalk or hold the doors open as you run toward the subway train about to pull away. But here, their kindness is misplaced. Usually, there’s nothing you can do to help the situation; better to let the weepy have a private moment. Consider public crying the equivalent of a “do not disturb sign,” a shade drawn over a window.
Evolutionarily speaking, the reasons why anyone cries are pretty paper thin. It was long thought that crying had no evolutionary purpose at all. Sure, we need tears to clean and protect our eyes, but why should they have any emotional meaning? Randy Cornelius, a professor of psychology at Vassar College, told NPR that there are a few theories. “Crying may have evolved as a kind of signal,” he said, “a signal that was valuable because it could only be picked up by those closest to us who could actually see our tears. Tears let our intimates in — people within a couple feet of us, who would be more likely to help.”
But if this is true, crying in public is certainly useless. Instead of opening ourselves up to family or friends who understand our sadness or can at least provide words of comfort, crying in public is to offer ourselves up to unsuspecting strangers. Most of them are uninterested in our tears, and that’s fine. Let the tears come; New York is hot, the G train will be down, and the line for cold-brew iced coffee too long.