Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, 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 blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory.

The most obvious possibility is that this shift is the result of changes that took place as we moved from a 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 only 50-300 inhabitants, most of them related by blood or marriage; a situation like an extended family stuck in an eternal reunion in the middle of nowhere. Medieval courts were also environments of extreme intimacy, where courtiers spent entire days in each other’s company, year after year. Kings routinely conducted business from their beds, at the foot of which their favourite servants slept at night. We can see this familiarity also in odd details of royal life, such as the nobleman in the courts of many European kings whose coveted privilege it was to assist the king in defecation.

But from the 18th through the 20th centuries, the population became increasingly urbanised; soon, 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 (1999), factory managers deliberately trained their workers to suppress emotion with the aim of boosting productivity: ‘You don’t want emotions interfering with the smooth running of things’.

Although some women worked in factories too, they were far more likely to remain in the home. They took in sewing, laundry or lodgers; or hired themselves out as domestics and governesses in other people’s houses. When a housewife or housemaid burst into tears, she was witnessed only by the members of her household. Often she wasn’t witnessed at all. Instead of being shouted at by a foreman, she could sob into her own laundry tub in peace.

From a cold and calculating perspective, it does indeed make sense, and not just in the workplace. Less crying means more time to focus on other things, to spare others of discomfort and distraction, and to prevent the potential of emotional manipulation. As hard as it is for most men and women to have to hold back their true feelings, many would deep down prefer to be spared from dealing with others’ drama.

But as many could intuitively guess, the sudden and wholesale suppression of emotion is not without consequences.

human beings weren’t designed to swallow their emotions, and there’s reason to believe that suppressing tears can be hazardous to your wellbeing. Research in the 1980s by Margaret Crepeau, then Professor of Nursing at Marquette University in Milwaukee, found a relationship between a person’s rate of stress-related illnesses and inadequate crying. Weeping is also, somewhat counter-intuitively, correlated with happiness. Vingerhoets, a professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has found that in countries where people cry the most, they also report the highest levels of satisfaction. Finally, crying is an important tool for understanding one’s own feelings. A 2012 study of patients with Sjögren’s syndrome – whose sufferers are incapable of producing tears – found they had significantly more difficulty identifying their emotions than a control group.

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 social behaviour, designed to elicit care from people around you. While this might be inappropriate in the context of a performance review, it could be an essential way of alerting friends and family – and even colleagues – that you need support. Taboos against male expressiveness mean that men are far 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. Male depression is also more likely to express itself in alcoholism and drug addiction, which have their own high death toll. Think of stoical Scandinavia, whose nations rank high for productivity – but also lead the world in rates of alcoholism and suicide.

So it might be time for men to return to the free-flowing tears of the past. Although we can’t go back to the close-knit villages of the medieval era, we can try to revive their fraternal spirit. As office culture becomes increasingly informal, might we want to supplement casual Fridays with emotional Mondays? Can we imagine a world in which both men and women weep openly when hearing disappointing figures in a sales meeting? We might shrink away from the idea of a modern-day Lancelot who, when his boss doesn’t want to send him to a big conference, sobs until he gets his own way. But this risk seems trivial, set beside a world where we suppress our feelings until we scarcely know what they are.

As anxiety, depression, and other stress-related pathologies become increasingly visible in the modern world, it is likely that one of their most common expressions also become more open. Regardless, no one should be made to constantly deny or hold back their feelings. Getting a handle on your emotions is one thing, but depriving half of humanity from this most basic form of expression is a different matter.

What are your thoughts?

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