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Language of Tears
August 15, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Language of Tears

Have an issue? Sorry, no tissue.

Next time you’re on the carpet in Translation Guy’s office, don’t look for a box of Kleenex. If it’s got to do with business, it’s the bum’s rush for crybabies. If it’s a personal matter, death in the family, hell, even if your cat died, I’ll be boo-hooing right along with you. But when it comes to business, no tears allowed.

“Let’s take a break. We’ll continue this conversation after you’ve had a chance to compose yourself” is management speak for “Get lost, crybaby.”  It’s just that when I am trying to manipulate the behavior of others (we call it management), I don’t want to get manipulated myself. But I’m a sucker for tears. And I’m not the only one. Tears, laughter and touch carry so much more emotional weight than the chatter that generally passes as communication, that I suspect tears are tools of our heart, the flint hatchets that came before the rapier of language, back when humanoids had more heart than brains (although when it comes to emotional impact, I guess we ain’t changed all that much).

But if tears are a kind of language, just what do they mean? In an ingenious experiment, Noam Sobel, professor of neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, was able to determine that tears carry messages through chemistry. Sobel collected tear drop samples from female “easy criers” watching sad movies and collected them in bottles. Cotton pads were dipped in the tears and then held under the noses of male subjects. At first sniff, the odorless tears were indistinguishable from a saline solution used as a control, but once the sniffing subjects were tested, tear exposure proved to be a real turn-off. The males exposed to tears rated female faces as less sexually attractive than did men who sniffed saline. Testosterone in their saliva went south with a reported loss of sexual interest, even after watching racy videos. Sobel thinks that because a decrease in testosterone levels is linked to reduced hostility, “weeping dampens not only the libido but also violent behavior,” suggesting that tears are an evolutionary cry for mercy.

“Chemical signaling is a form of language,” says Sobel. “Basically what we’ve found is the chemo-signaling word for ‘no’ — or at least ‘not now.’”

The researchers are currently studying men’s emotional tears (it’s been much harder to find good male criers), so the scientific implications of men in tears remains an open question. But Dr. Sobel says he believes that men’s tears will also turn out to transmit chemical signals, perhaps serving to reduce aggression in other men. And kids? More work needs to be done.

And what would a post on tears be without the obligatory link to “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To),” as covered by the late Amy Winehouse.

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