Is a person really crying if there are no tears?
August 26, 2016 2:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm asking as I just watched a live drama tv program where a young man's face was almost constantly contorted as if he was in the throes of crying but there were no tears. It reminded me of something I once heard a cop say regarding questioning a suspect who, also, sobbed very much over the death of a loved one but no tears were shed. The policeman said "No tears? Its fake." I know whenever I'm really emotionally over the edge I will cry with tears - I call that experience "crying" - is there another type?
posted by Tullyogallaghan to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Not all people's tear ducts work the same.
Not all crying has apparent liquid coming from eyes.
Not all liquid from eyes is crying.

If someone is sobbing and distraught, I think it's very ignorant and dickish to say it's 'fake' because there are no visible tear drops.

As usual, Wikipedia has more detail and references in tears.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:27 PM on August 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

That guy is full of it. I have been socialized that men don't cry and it is damned difficult to even shed a tear when I am overcome with emotion, even to the point where I'm totally incapable of anything but voiceless sobbing.

People naturally respond to emotions differently and people are conditioned to respond to emotions in different ways.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:29 PM on August 26, 2016 [16 favorites]

Between physical, endocrinological, medical, fight-or-flight, and social conditions, there's just no guarantee of tears. Also no guarantee that you'll even get reddening around the nose/lips/eyes.

Cops think they know a lot of shit that they actually don't.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:45 PM on August 26, 2016 [30 favorites]

I used to say I had constipated tear ducts. I would be doubled over and sobbing, absolutely distraught, but without shedding any actual tears. It was extremely frustrating, and sometimes it would give me bad headaches. These days I can cry, and I don't know if that's because I came out as trans and that freed up my emotions or if the circumstances of my life just became grim enough that my stingy eyeballs couldn't keep it in anymore.

Of course, if somebody IS trying to fake being sad for sympathy or whatever, it's not impossible they won't actually cry. But plenty of people can make themselves cry at will. The lack of tears is hardly a foolproof "tell".
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:54 PM on August 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

I used to be a trauma counselor in the ER. The range of what distraught looks like is as wide as the ocean. Tears with maniacal laughing? Seen it. No tears and body shaking sobs? That too.

Maybe think of it as "crying out" instead of "crying tears."
posted by 26.2 at 3:54 PM on August 26, 2016 [41 favorites]

For me, crying typically takes one of two forms: (1) Uncontrollable tears without sobbing (which is often humiliating), or (2) Feeling (and giving in to) a compelling need to sob, but without actually producing tears.

The only difference in the circumstances of the two that I can think of is that the involuntary tears/ sobless thing happens, generally, in response to a primarily EXTERNAL stimulus: It can be something negative, like an especially harsh interaction with another person, something very bad happening to a family member or a pet; reading a particularly fucked-up news story; etc.-- or a response to something positive but emotionally overwhelming, like a wedding, meeting a loved one's new baby for the first time, or seeing an active labor strike in progress. (I reliably get hella verklempt within ten meters of any picket line, despite having almost no history in organized labor, because I am apparently some sort of a freak.)

The tear-less sob thing generally happens when I'm faced with something extremely stressful, difficult, and emotionally draining, that I, nonetheless, have to force myself to actively engage with and get through. With this, a larger part of the stimulus (i.e., the dread, and the knowledge that I'm going to be forcing myself to do something that really do not want to do) is actually INTERNAL, and it happens more frequently when there's a physical component to the contemplated, unwelcome task. The sob interval (which, for me, is sufficiently volition-dependent that it has happened in the presence of another human being only once in my 40+ years) seems like it's a moment of necessary corporeal indulgence, and also a way for my mind and body to get on the same page about how truly rotten the next little bit of life is going to be, and to acknowledge, forgive, and dismiss weakness in either quarter. The subsequent quieting of the sobs then becomes a kind of calming-down and steeling-up process that prepares me to just get on in there and do whatever the miserable thing I have to do is.

And retrospectively, it provides me with a kind of emotional bookmark: "Hey, remember when you didn't think doing 'X' would be so bad? Yeah? Well, going forward, you need to remember that putting yourself through 'X' is actually HORRIBLE and you have proof that it's horrible because you can't actually make yourself do it unless you hide somewhere and quietly lose your shit for a couple minutes first. So make damn sure the results of any future 'X' are worth it, and maybe look for some 'X' alternatives that won't do that to you so much."

Interestingly, I don't actually seem able to do the tears-and-sobs-at-once thing anymore. The last time I can remember doing it, I was in my mid-twenties. I didn't do it when my deeply beloved corgi mix died, and I didn't do it when my mother died. On both occasions, my eyes leaked plenty, and I didn't try to stop them, but there were no sobs.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:08 PM on August 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

You know that, on television (assuming you weren't watching the news?) 100% of tears are fake, right?

I've personally never cried without shedding actual tears, though I can remember some times when I sobbed very large and lost facial/vocal control without all that much actual water dripping out of my face. My nose tends to run when I cry, as well, so there's basically a lot of stuff going on and who can really say how much of it is water dripping from my actual tear ducts.

Add me to the chorus of folks saying that I tend not to trust cops on emotional stuff like whether a person really was upset about something. They are trained not to be over sympathetic to people going through a traumatic experience.
posted by Sara C. at 4:41 PM on August 26, 2016

One of my friends was born without tear ducts. So yeah, you can definitely cry without tears.
posted by superlibby at 4:45 PM on August 26, 2016

It's really hard for most actors to cry all the way through a scene. Keep in mind that the 3-minute scene you see in the movie was shot anywhere from 3-25 times from each angle. That means that by the end of the day, a scene in which an actor cries might have been run through 40 times. With breaks of anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours in between each run, when the camera moves or there's a lunch break or something gets messed up and must be fixed or a new light must be hung or whatever.

The actors have to "save their performance" for the takes that matter most, which would probably be around take 5-6 for each camera setup (because by then everyone else has their part of the scene together- the rhythm is worked out, the camera moves and focus changes are smooth, the lighting has been tweaked, and nobody's flubbing lines), and also for their closeups, which are shot last. It's exhausting.

Here's an example schedule for a scene you'd see in a normal movie:

30 mins to rehearse and walk through the scene.
40 mins of makeup, set decoration, and camera finals.

6-30 takes of the wide shot, with errors and adjustments in & between each take.
Actors try to get the feeling of tears, if not actual tears, for about the final third of these takes.
Oops, focus puller missed and that one was blurry. Oops, there's a water bottle in the shot. Oops, a cloud made the sunlight weird. Oops, it started to drizzle. Oops, a background actor tripped. Oops, I see a weird tag on her shirt. Oops, we heard a plane go by, let's go again.

15 mins to move the camera to the medium shot.
5 minutes of makeup touchups.

6 times through the medium shot, with adjustments between each take.
Actors tries to get a tear or two for about take 5 and 6. (They need the emotions, but want to save the really intense tears for the closeups).

60 minutes for lunch. Joke around, check email.
40 mins to move the camera.
15 minutes for makeup touchups.

6 times through her closeup, with adjustments between each take. She tries to really give it and cry tears in every take of her closeup, since that's the shot that gets used in crying moments.
10 minutes to get the closeup of her hand holding a prop.

40 minutes to turn the camera around.
5 minutes of makeup touchups.

6 times through his closeup. He also tries to cry in every take of his closeup. Note that by the time he's on this shot, it's like 4pm and he started at 6am. As you can imagine, it's really hard to time, and sustain, and break for lunch, and then re-experience, emotions like this. Plus the part of the story that happened to motivate those tears in the first place, was probably shot on a different day, or maybe not even shot yet. And his scene partner might end their day before his closeup, so he might be looking at a tennis ball and hearing lines read with no emotion by a nervous continuity person standing in the wrong place. It's hard!

Actors have to hold on to emotions all day, and then release them right on command. They prep carefully- by researching the role, listening to music that's meaningful to them, re-living personal traumas, skipping lunch, getting menthol rubbed under their eyes to help their eyes water, and often by being sort of generally emotional for their entire lives.

The really good performances- those are real tears. But that comes from exceptional actors who can access those emotions on set, and from sets that are both organized enough to give them time to get where they need to be, and skilled enough to capture the magic with no tech errors.

And then maybe they totally cry and it's gorgeous... but the focus was wrong and the take can't be used. So then in the next take, 45 minutes later... they're just out of tears. Frankly it's a wonder actors can cry at all. So that's why you get scenes where the actor is at or close to the right emotional state- but the tears are used up, or not ripe yet, or whatever, so they contort but don't cry. (I was trained not to do this by the way- don't fake cry, just be as emotional as your body actually is. But not everyone subscribes to this, and sometimes you have to push a bit to get to the emotions, and the pushing is what gets caught on tape).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:45 PM on August 26, 2016 [52 favorites]

My personal anecdata: I have, on a few very distressing occasions, cried until I ran out of tears - all the other crying symptoms kept going (sobbing, heaving chest, trembling lips and voice, contorted face) but there just wasn't any water left to come out of my eyes.
posted by girlgenius at 5:53 PM on August 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have cried and cried until I physically could not produce tears anymore, while still sobbing and wracked with grief.

I have laughed until I had tears of joy rolling down my face. I have wept at diaper commercials and Youtube videos of puppies.

I have stood dry-eyed, stoic, through funerals of loved ones, while exploding inside my head.

I have cried very involuntary and unwelcome tears while angry, while frightened, while existentially anxious over unnameable things.

I have screamed and moaned in animalistic sounds and sobbed, dry-eyed, in pain and fear.

I have quietly wept uncontrollable tears during the fireworks at Disneyland.

Tears are not a good measure of anything much.
posted by erst at 7:49 PM on August 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

Babies can't cry tears until 2-4 months, and continue to frequently cry without tears for quite a while -- depending on the individual child. Some kids will be five years old and HOWLING in upset or rage or fear with no tears. Others are prodigious tear-ers.

I'm a crier, and generally with copious tears, but sometimes the sobbing happens but the tears just don't. I don't know why, there doesn't seem to be a particular rhyme or reason. I also, conversely, sometimes tear up without the sobbing/gasping/face crumpling parts.

I had a relative who developed a condition where he stopped making saliva or tears for about two years, and could not cry with tears during that time, although that's a bit of an outlier for your question! (He had to use very frequent eyedrops to protect his eyes from damage, and all your water has to be fluoridated when you have no saliva if you like having teeth.) But I suppose theoretically a cop could be interviewing someone with a medical condition that prevented tears, say "Whoa, he didn't cry tears so he's faking when he sobs" and be super-wrong and it could touch off a TV cop-drama plot.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:53 PM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Personally I think of "crying" as literally that: tears attached to grief or sadness or other emotion, but I don't think that crying is the only valid expression of grief. I mean I personally am a crier but my mother is not, and when her mother died we both pretty much came apart at the service but in very different ways. Hers at least left her makeup intact.

I guess what I'm saying is that the presence or absence of tears means about jack shit as far as judging whether an emotional expression is valid or real.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:03 AM on August 27, 2016

It's not just that men were socialized a certain way; testosterone inhibits tear production. Trans men are proof of this; it's very common not to be able to shed tears (or as many) even under strong emotions after one starts hormone therapy. So, that experience of crying-without-tears is totally valid.
posted by AFABulous at 8:32 AM on August 27, 2016

I can produce tears by concentrating on parts of my face. I'm not sure what's going on when I do it, but I don't need to think about sad things.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:59 AM on September 10, 2016

Oh, for the record: AMAB man, normal testosterone as far as I know.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:59 AM on September 10, 2016

I've seen an assistant blow air into the actor's eyes through a soda straw just before filming, to get some tears flowing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:37 AM on September 12, 2016

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