Despite efforts to show that animals cry, Robert Provine (Curious Behavior) argues that “dispassionate evaluation of evidence indicates that neither elephants nor chimpanzees, our primate cousins, shed an emotional tear. The exclusivity of humankind’s crown jewels— language, laughter, and tool use— has been challenged, but emotional tearing still stands as a uniquely human trait. Even human newborns don’t gain membership in the emotional tear club until several weeks or months after birth. Emotional tears are a universally understood and uniquely human signal of sadness and other emotional states and acts, including vocal crying, grief, despair, pain, happiness, anger, and empathy, as well as yawning, laughing, and sneezing” (80).
Provine, though, is suspicious of the cliched connection of tears and sadness. We believe that tears are a signal of sadness. Experiments with his students not only proved this obvious point but showed that “tears resolve ambiguity of facial expression. The removal of tears often produced faces of uncertain emotional valence— perhaps awe, concern, contemplation, fright, or puzzlement, not simply less sadness. In other words, without tears, faces may not appear very sad, especially if they fall in the middle range of the emotional spectrum” (81-2).
He points to connections between tears and a variety of emotional registers: “vocal crying, grief, despair, pain, happiness, anger, and empathy, as well as yawning, laughing, and sneezing” (80). In each case, tears are not only expressive but indicative, both to ourselves and others. Provine concludes, “Daily, we are actor and audience in our own unending, life and- death drama of unknown plot. We are left guessing our way through life, grasping at fleeting social and cognitive cues that we can barely appreciate and never master, trying to read inscrutable faces, known and unknown. In this uncertain environment, a tear changes everything” (93).