People cry about anything and everything. We cry about things like onions, spilt milk, and the difficulty of threading a needle. We weep when we laugh too much, when we are too exhausted, and when we see someone else cry, we tend to cry too. At what do we not cry? We cry for a variety of reasons, such as anxiety and annoyance, happiness and sorrow, too little or too much sleep, extreme melancholy and plain boredom, and the remembrance of the past and the prospect of the future. Since crying is so prevalent, it might indicate anything at all or nothing at all.

It’s also difficult to consider crying. It mangles and spoils our thinking, distorts our vision, and clogs our throats and nostrils. Both pleasure and pain may be experienced in it: you may feel content when you know you are going to cry and relieved when the crying stops. Tears might run cold, indicating an icy detachment, or they can feel hot on your cheek and indicate intense rage. They may seep out softly without our knowledge or awareness, or they may ache as if they were tiny stones lodged in our eyes.

Some people are almost impervious to tears; even a great tragedy may cause them to shed just one. Some cry silently inside, or they scream out but pretend not to have cried. Some folks cry all day long because they are naturally depressed. I came onto a 1915 book titled On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions that had an image of a dejected-looking woman covered in a checkered blanket and shawl.

She glances up with a weary, skeptical expression on her face, her lips pursed. “Photo of a homesick patient in hospital whose brain threshold had been lowered to the point where the slightest stimulus resulted in tears,” the caption says.

It is likely that the photographer who captured the image triggered her once more. There are also contented weepers, who cry with “abundant and easy tears which mingle with the grace of a smile, and give to the face an expression of compassion and joy” as naturally as they sing. (Beaumarchais claimed as much in 1767.)

There are two types of crying: conspicuous, where it’s evident to everybody, and absolutely subdued. When his ambulance passed his preferred café, fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was so totally paralyzed he could only blink one eye, sobbed. As he writes in his biography, “I can weep quite discreetly.” “People think I have tears in my eye.” When a few tears fall on a cheek, it might be a sight to behold.

However, when the eyelids swell and phlegm fills the throat, it can be disgusting. It may be searing or silent—just the sound of an unseen teardrop dropping. Men howl in desperation, whereas women scream and growl. How is it feasible to lump everything together into a single category and use a single theory to explain it all? It’s not even safe to trust tears—some indicate intense emotion, while others have little significance.

When handled skillfully, a tear can be used as an effectual trump card. Novelists Stendhal, Thackeray, and Dickens were all concerned about heartless women who fake tears to give the impression that they are in love.