WHICH nation sheds more tears per capita than any other nation?
The United States, apparently, where they weep at anything from
sporting triumph to X Factor tragedy. And who is least
likely to cry? The Crying Game (Radio 4, Friday) found
that the most buttoned-up peoples are Bulgarian men and Icelandic
We have all become more content to blub in public than we used
to be; and it is pretty much de rigueur to leave the latest
cinematic tear-fest, Les Misérables, with glistening eyes
and sniffly nose. But the social and evolutionary function of
emotional tears is still debated.
Professor Michael Trimble's excellent book Why Humans Like
to Cry formed the basis of this documentary, presented by
Geoff Watts. His particular interest is in the unique power of
music to move us to tears. Nobody cries in the presence of
architecture or sculpture - unless, of course, they are tears of
rage at something unspeakable that blocks the view from your
conservatory. A small number of people will claim to weep over a
great painting; but about 90 per cent of people worldwide say that
music has moved them to tears.
Of course, people love to weep. They go back to see the same
film or replay the same song expressly to have a good cry. Whether
it is actually good for you to cry is a subject of debate; but
certainly it is an outward sign of an inner emotional state, and
thus provokes socially useful feelings of sympathy among your
This is because tears are hard to fake or turn on at a moment's
notice - unless you're Elizabeth Taylor, who claimed to be able to
cry on any given line. We heard in the course of the show from a
drama coach who teaches actors to cry. It is one of the skills
every jobbing actor must have: think of all the tears expressed in
the average episode of Holby City. As an actor, if you
cannot cry, you do not eat.
The final, and most provocative, speculation in this fascinating
survey came from a biologist who pondered why we have evolved to
express emotion by crying rather than dribbling or having a runny
nose. Our anatomy had, quite by chance, taken one evolutionary
road. In the same way, he went on, we might speculate about why we
talk out of our mouths rather than any other orifice.
Listening to The Forum: Meaning in life (BBC World
Service, Saturday), I wondered whether some of our species have
taken this alternative biological path. So diffuse was this
discussion about "what gives meaning to our lives", yet so wizened
were the tones in which the views were expressed, that the word
"meaning", repeated endlessly, ceased to have any meaning.
Alain de Botton, with his recent book Religion for
Atheists, has a knack for the apposite aphorism - a Camus for
the Twitter generation - and Alexandre Mitchell on his specialist
subject of archaeology is fine. But blundering around in this
unstructured exchange hardly showed them off. The show was followed
immediately, and somewhat bizarrely, with a burst of birdsong - a
regular World Service feature, apparently - which sounded a good
deal more meaningful than anything in the previous 40 minutes.