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Letting the tears flow: the science and culture of crying

An illustration of a Black man sitting on an airplane from the seat in front of him. He is looking out the window with a tear running down his face. He is wearing a red shirt, has a beard and is wearing an earring in the ear that is visible in the illustration.
Charnel Hunter

Humans are the only animal to produce emotional tears. Asking questions about this behavior can help us better understand how we live our lives.

Why do we cry?

That question has many answers. To start, there are actually three different types of tears — the tears you cry while chopping onions aren’t the same as those that form in a moment of grief. One of the primary causes of crying is fatigue. Tears are a social signal, which communicate our distress.

But those facts only scratch the surface of why we cry … and getting curious about when we cry, where we do it and what experiences produce tears can help us learn more about the role crying plays in our lives as individuals.

Host Anita Rao takes on that curiosity around crying with poet Heather Christle, the author of “The Crying Book.” They touch on everything from white women’s tears to the sadness of a cut lemon that can never be whole again.

And creative director Viorel Tanase joins to talk about why he posted a crying selfie on Instagram for his 23rd birthday and how he’s pushing back against toxic masculinity by embracing tears.

Special thanks to Priska, Yulia, Celeste, Emily, Chessa, Christina and Amanda for sharing stories with us for this episode!

The Strange Places We’ve Cried
Poet Heather Christle’s non-fiction exploration of crying, “The Crying Book,” initially started as an idea to map out all the places she had cried. So we turned it into a little exercise for Team Embodied! Here are the places where we really remember our tears.

In a Wendy’s Walk-In Fridge
“When I was a teenager, I once sat in the walk-in fridge of Wendy's and cried. My boss caught me, but since I looked so sad, he told me to finish up and get to the register in 10 minutes. He also recommended the freezer so my face would un-puff.”
-technical director Jenni Lawson

On a Neighborhood Sidewalk
“I sobbed while walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood on a weekday morning because I thought I was going to be pregnant forever.”
-editor Amanda Magnus

On a Toddler-Sized Train
“I cried on a mini train for toddlers at a local science museum about whether or not it was worth getting married given the absurdity of the Wedding Industrial Complex.”
-host Anita Rao

At an FKA Twigs Concert
“Twigs closed out her set with her song "Cellophane" and I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. Afterwards, I was standing motionless on the grass field as the crowd dispersed. My family turned and asked me if I was okay and I wept uncontrollably haha. She gave the most beautiful performance I had ever seen!”
-producer Paige Perez

In a Wegmans
“Just the other day I started crying in Wegman's because they didn't have this specific flavor of a snack I was really craving lol! That little thing sent me over the edge, and all the stress and lack of sleep from finals season just overwhelmed me in that moment and I couldn't stop crying.”
-intern Madison Speyer

At an Acquaintance’s Wedding
“I was my partner-at-the-time’s plus one. I didn’t even know the couple that well, but when they shared their vows the tears just started streaming down my face.”
-producer Kaia Findlay

Please note: This conversation originally aired May 19, 2023.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.