Kid’s fake tears: One culture’s response may be a far cry from another

Many years ago, I witnessed a Japanese mother decline a request made by her daughter, who I’ll call “Chiaki,” who was probably about 4 years old at the time. Chiaki more or less gave up, but she briefly registered her protest by making fists of her little hands, raising them to the side of her eyes, and rotating the fists back and forth while producing a rather mechanical wailing sound. I was most impressed by her performance, not because of any great acting — which Chiaki appeared to deliberately eschew in favor of an artificial enactment of sorrow and frustration — but owing to the sophisticated sense of irony she brought to the routine, going through the motions knowing full well that her act would in no way move her mother’s heart to reconsider her entreaty. It was a routine that was perfunctory and over-the-top at the same time.

While Chiaki’s crying was a totally unabashed sham, children do indeed sometimes playact crying in earnest, in an attempt at manipulating onlookers’ emotions and subsequent conduct. As in so many facets of daily life, the action can be similar across cultures, but how it is evaluated may differ. Developmental psychologist Ai Mizokawa conducted a study of attitudes toward pretend crying among 40 Japanese and 31 British children 5 to 6 years of age. Nobody likes a fake sobber, but the Japanese kids were much more likely to indicate they thought a compassionate stance would be appropriate.

The children in both cultural groups were told two stories related to feigned crying featuring two characters, X and Y. (X and Y were given Japanese names when telling the story to the Japanese children and British names for the British children’s story.) For each story there were two illustrations, with the first showing the basic situation and the second showing X pretending to cry as Y looks on. The narratives were simple and concise.

In the first account, called the “harm story,” Y has ostensibly caused X to cry. The script reads: “X is playing in a room. Y is not looking where she is going, and bumps into X. X bangs her head against a wall, so X decides to pretend to cry, because she has a slight pain. X pretends to cry.” In the second “harm-free story,” X’s pretense is motivated through pencil envy: “X is drawing with a black pencil. Y is drawing with a blue pencil. X thinks that the blue pencil is nicer. X decides to pretend to cry because he wants to borrow the blue pencil. X pretends to cry.”

After hearing the stories and seeing the pictures, the children were asked four questions. Question 1 asked whether X was “really crying” or “not crying.” All of the children responded that X was not crying, so they understood the charade. The British and Japanese children were also by and large in agreement concerning the last of the four questions, which asked, “What do you think about X’s behavior, ‘pretending to cry’? Is it good? Just all right? Not good?” Almost everyone concurred that simulated tears were not good, with an average of 94% of the British kids stating so regarding both stories and an average of 84% of the Japanese respondents answering the same way.

This 10% discrepancy in moral judgement between the two cultural groups was amplified in their responses to Questions 2 and 3. Question 2 asked the children to choose what Y thinks when he/she sees X: 1) “What’s happened to X?” classified as “concern”; 2) “I also feel sad,” slotted as “self-distress”; or 3) “X is a strange boy/girl,” categorized as “denial.” Regarding both situations, the majority of the Japanese children chose “concern,” with an average of 87%, but only 18% of the British children made this selection. Thirty-five percent of the British respondents thought Y would feel sad and 47% thought Y would think X was strange. In contrast, only 9% of the Japanese imagined Y would feel sad, and a paltry 4% believed Y would think X was strange.

Question 3 next asked the children, “What is Y going to do now?” with three choices: 1) ask “Are you all right?”; 2) say, “You are a crybaby”; or 3) say nothing to X. In responding to this question, there were differences depending on whether it was the harm story or the harm-free pencil situation. In the harm story, 90% of the Japanese children supposed that Y would ask X is he/she were all right, but this dropped to 80% in the harm-free scenario. On the other hand, only 58% of the British children considered that Y would ask if X was all right in the harm story, with a similar decrease to 36% for the harm-free version.

Saying nothing was chosen by 36% of the British children in the harm story and 58% in the harm-free story. The Japanese children were also more likely to say nothing in the harm-free story but nonetheless only 15% made this selection, just a little bit more than the 10% who thought Y would say nothing in the harm story. The “crybaby” mocking selection was low among both groups, with an average frequency of 3% for the Japanese and 7% for the British respondents. The British children were equally likely to choose teasing in either scenario, but no Japanese thought Y would tease X if he or she had bumped into X, whereas 5% thought Y would tease X if he or she pretended to cry about the pencil.

Mizokawa posits two explanations for the Japanese tendency to evince concern compared to their British counterparts. She points to research suggesting that Japanese people may not be able to show their emotions as easily as people in some Western cultures, and further notes that Japanese children are socialized to cultivate “omoiyari,” an important cultural keyword related to empathy.

Of these potential reasons, the second sounds more plausible to me, as indeed the omoiyari orientation often results in compassionate attention to others. But, considering Mizokawa’s first account, if Japanese children are assuming that X indeed feels something that might be better expressed in a more pro-social manner but which he or she is incapable of communicating except through a pitiful farce, then they are indeed adept at interpreting human behavior, and I’m even more impressed with them than I was with wry Chiaki.