Illustration by Sofia Bews.

Illustration by Sofia Bews.

Let’s say you’ve just closed the public bathroom stall door. You think you’re alone. Yes! This never happens. And then you hear it: a solitary sniffle, over in the last stall. A wet sniffle. Uh-oh. You know that sound. That is the universal sound of human misery. Someone is crying. What do you…do?

Well, that depends. You don’t have to do anything. Lots of people just want to be left alone when they’re crying. But crying in public is a special kind of crying: When someone is crying in public, it’s often a sure sign that something is so wrong that it couldn’t wait until they were home and able to cry in their bedroom while listening to Adele at top volume. And if something is really, really going wrong for someone, sometimes you might feel like stepping in and seeing if there’s anything you can do. HOW CAN WE HELP CRIERS??? Let’s go over some options.

If the crying person is a stranger:

In general, it’s hard to know when or if to offer assistance to crying strangers. Some public places are more miserable to cry in than others, and this is because places with zero privacy (a crowded room, a restaurant, public transit) offer zero shelter for crying. If the crying stranger in question is locked in a public bathroom stall, chances are they are in there to have some semblance of privacy and just have feelings for a minute, away from the world. I would leave this person alone to cry, unless it’s quite clear from the sounds coming from the stall that things are NOT OK AT ALL (e.g., loud wailing is happening, or both crying and sounds of bodily distress like puking are issuing forth). That would be the moment for a gentle knock on the door, and a friendly, “Hi, are you OK in there? Do you need help?”

What if you see a girl sitting across from you on the train or bus, openly crying? Do you do/say something then? Well, it all depends on a simple visual cue: Is the crying girl trying to hide the crying? Like, is she wiping away tears as fast as they fall or trying to cover her face? If so, leave her be. She is trying to stop crying in public. But if she is openly sobbing, makes eye contact, or looks extremely wobbly, it would be v v helpful to wordlessly and discreetly hand her a tissue and/or give her a friendly look. Don’t ask her what’s wrong. Just a friendly look and a tissue, if you have one, the end.

Say you’re alone and walk into a room at a party and there is a girl standing in there by herself, sobbing. This is when you calmly say, “OK, I’m going to get you a tissue, I’ll be right back,” with no preamble. No need to flit all over her with “Hey, are you OK?” (Of course she’s not OK—she’s crying at a party!) or “OMG what happened?” (It’s none of your business, and explaining it might upset her even more.) Head directly to the kitchen, get a glass of water, find a tissue or piece of toilet paper or paper towel, and go right back into the room and hand it to the crying person. She will recognize you and take the items (all crying people want tissues and water), and that might be the moment she tells you what’s going on, if she feels like it. And maybe she won’t say anything, but at least you tried to help! Go you!

If you know the crying person:

How close are you? If this is someone you are vaguely aware of at school, it’s totally fine to quietly go up to them, ask if there’s anything you can do to help, and then hand them a tissue. They might feel like telling you what’s up, and they might not, and either will be fine. I promise you this, though: the acquaintance you quietly check on will never forget that you were kind to them during a bad moment.

If the teary person is a friend, you know what to do! Maybe you see your crying friend and say something cheesy, like “ALL RIGHT, WHO DO I NEED TO KILL?,” which might make them laugh-hiccup, which is a good step toward recovery. Maybe you see your crying friend and sense that you need to sling an arm around their shoulders, or offer them a piece of candy, or whisper that no one else will even know they’re crying, you can hardly tell!

Each public-cry scenario is unique, but some day when you’re the public crier, believe me, you will want those tissues or other low-key gestures of support, too. ♦