Why Don’t Men Cry?


Reader's Digest - - Front Page - BY SAN­DRA NEW­MAN FROM AEON.CO

Boys learn from an early age that shed­ding even one tear in pub­lic will make them look weak. Yet weep­ing used to be manly enough. Af­ter all, Je­sus did it.

ONE OF OUR MOST FIRMLY en­trenched ideas of mas­culin­ity is that a real man doesn’t cry. Al­though he might shed a dis­creet tear at a fu­neral, he is ex­pected to quickly re­gain con­trol. Sob­bing openly is for girls.

This isn’t just a so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion. One study found that women re­port cry­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more than men do—five times as of­ten, on av­er­age, and al­most twice as long per episode.

So it’s per­haps sur­pris­ing to learn that the gen­der gap in cry­ing seems to be a re­cent devel­op­ment. His­tor­i­cally, men rou­tinely wept, and no one saw it as fem­i­nine or shame­ful.

For ex­am­ple, in chron­i­cles of the Mid­dle Ages, we find one am­bas­sador re­peat­edly burst­ing into tears when ad­dress­ing Philip the Good, and the en­tire au­di­ence at a peace congress throw­ing them­selves on the ground, sob­bing and groan­ing as they lis­ten to the speeches.

In me­dieval ro­mances, knights cried purely be­cause they missed their girl­friends. In Chré­tien de Troyes’s Lancelot, or, The Knight of the Cart, no less a hero than Lancelot weeps at a brief sep­a­ra­tion from Guin­e­vere. At an­other point, he cries on a lady’s shoul­der at the thought that he won’t get to go to a big tour­na­ment be­cause of his cap­tiv­ity. What’s more, in­stead of be­ing dis­gusted by this snivel­ing, the lady is moved to help.

There’s no men­tion of the men in these sto­ries try­ing to

re­strain or hide their tears. No one pre­tends to have some­thing in his eye. No one makes an ex­cuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their com­pan­ions make fun of this pub­lic blub­ber­ing; it’s uni­ver­sally re­garded as an ad­mirable ex­pres­sion of feel­ing.

The Bi­ble is full of ref­er­ences to demon­stra­tive weep­ing by kings, en­tire peo­ples, and God him­self, as in­car­nated in Je­sus. In fact, one of the most fa­mous verses in the Bi­ble, John 11:35, reads, “Je­sus wept.”

So where did all the male tears go? There was no anti-cry­ing move­ment. No lead­ers of church or state in­tro­duced mea­sures to dis­cour­age them. Nev­er­the­less, by the Ro­man­tic pe­riod, mas­cu­line tears were re­served for poets. From there, it was just a short leap to the pok­er­faced heroes of Ernest Hem­ing­way, who, de­spite their po­etic lean­ings, could not ex­press grief by any means but tip­pling and shoot­ing the oc­ca­sional buf­falo.

The most ob­vi­ous pos­si­bil­ity is that this shift is the re­sult of changes that took place as we moved from a

SAN­DRA NEW­MAN is a writer and the au­thor of three nov­els, in­clud­ing The Coun­try of Ice Cream Star.

feu­dal agrar­ian so­ci­ety to one that was ur­ban and in­dus­trial. In the Mid­dle Ages, most peo­ple spent their lives among those they had known since birth. A typ­i­cal vil­lage had around 250 to 300 in­hab­i­tants, most of them re­lated by blood or mar­riage. If men cried, they did so with peo­ple who would em­pathize.

But from the 18th to 20th cen­turies, the pop­u­la­tion be­came in­creas­ingly ur­ban­ized, and peo­ple were liv­ing in the midst of thou­sands of strangers. Fur­ther­more, changes in the econ­omy re­quired men to work to­gether in fac­to­ries and of­fices where emo­tional ex­pres­sion and even pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion were dis­cour­aged as time wast­ing. As Tom Lutz writes in Cry­ing: The Nat­u­ral and Cul­tural His­tory of Tears, “You don’t want emo­tions in­ter­fer­ing with the smooth run­ning of things.”

Yet hu­man be­ings weren’t de­signed to swal­low their emo­tions, and there’s rea­son to be­lieve that sup­press­ing tears can be haz­ardous to your well-be­ing. Re­search from the 1980s has sug­gested a re­la­tion­ship be­tween stress-re­lated ill­nesses and in­ad­e­quate cry­ing. Weep­ing is also, some­what coun­ter­in­tu­itively, cor­re­lated with hap­pi­ness and wealth. Coun­tries where peo­ple cry the most tend to be more demo­cratic and their pop­u­la­tions more ex­tro­verted.

You might also suf­fer if you sim­ply hide your tears from oth­ers, as men are now ex­pected to do. As we’ve seen, cry­ing can be a tool to elicit care. While this might be in­ap­pro­pri­ate dur­ing a per­for­mance re­view, it could be an es­sen­tial way of alert­ing oth­ers that you need sup­port.

Taboos against male ex­pres­sive­ness mean that men are less likely than women to get help when they’re suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion. This, in turn, is cor­re­lated with higher sui­cide rates (men are three to four times as likely to com­mit sui­cide as women), as well as higher rates of al­co­holism and drug ad­dic­tion.

It’s time to open the flood­gates. Time for men to give up em­u­lat­ing the stone-faced heroes of ac­tion movies and be more like the emo­tive heroes of Homer, like the weep­ing kings, saints, and states­men of thou­sands of years of hu­man his­tory. When mis­for­tune strikes, let us all— men and women—join to­gether and cry un­til our sleeves are drenched. As the Old Tes­ta­ment has it: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”

Coun­tries where peo­ple cry the most tend to be richer and more ex­tro­verted and demo­cratic.

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