If We Didn’t Laugh, We’d Cry, or Vice Versa

“Here are some other instances when I typically have trouble telling whether people are laughing or crying.”


Photo courtesy of Eleanor Wood

Something that I find incredibly poignant is when you can’t tell whether a person is crying or laughing. The two reactions exist on complete opposite ends of the emotional spectrum and yet, to an outside observer, they are often barely distinguishable.

I think that says a lot about humanity right there.

An example: once, I accidentally ran over the neighbor kid’s toy truck while backing out of my driveway and it was impossible to tell whether he was crying about the truck, or laughing because of the futility of it all. I would have asked him but I was running late.

Another occasion that comes to mind is my father’s funeral. Was everyone there crying over his untimely demise? Or were they laughing remembering how funny he looked while he was having that heart attack? In truth, it was probably an even split. We were all pretty conflicted, I’m sure, but that’s sort of what life is all about.

Sometimes, I admit, the confusion is my own doing. Whenever I choose to end a relationship, for instance, I pepper the break-up speech with lots of jokes in order to soften the blow. Of course, the combination of devastating news and hilarious one-liners makes it impossible to tell how the person I’m dumping is responding. But in most of those cases I’m pretty sure they’re laughing, stoically, tears of joy sliding down their cheeks as their lower lips quiver in silent fits of mirth.

Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. After all, there could very well be some evolutionary benefit to being able to conceal — or obscure — one’s most extreme emotional reactions. I think about that whenever I approach a random child and tell him that Santa Claus isn’t real.

Here are some other instances when I typically have trouble telling whether people are laughing or crying:

  • Whenever I fire someone from my dad’s company
  • At the ends of “sad” movies (sort of unclear about which movies these are)
  • The time I had to shoot my nephew’s dog because it either had rabies or was really happy to see us
  • Whenever I bring up the dog around my nephew (I do this a lot)
  • When I douse people with pepper spray, as a prank
  • Whenever someone says something like, “I’m obviously crying, you goddamn sociopath.” (Some kind of meta-joke?)

I think that it can go both ways, too. When I beat my drunk driving charge, the people in the courtroom may have wondered whether I was laughing out of relief or crying out of guilt for what happened to the neighbor kid (who really should have just stayed in his own driveway). What none of them could have known was that it was neither — I was laughing because I had suddenly remembered my dad’s heart attack face.

To me, the sound of laughter and/or crying is the most beautiful thing in the world and I’m glad that people spend so much time doing one or the other, especially when I’m around.

Jeremiah Budin is an editor at Curbed NY, a blog about real estate that's more fun than it sounds. Here is his Twitter.