Admit it: The last time you remember seeing a man cry you thought it was strange, but real men can cry. The truth is, society has always placed a stigma on the idea of men showing such a visceral emotion that tears are actually shed. The shared belief in society is that it’s not what men are supposed to do. It’s just not manly. Let’s look past the preconceived notions and stereotypes and find out why men aren’t being brought to tears that much and why they probably should cry every now and then for their own mental well-being. Ultimately let’s answer the question: ‘Why do we cry?’
It’s impossible to pinpoint when the act of crying was defined as something unbecoming of a man. In its simplest form, tears aren’t anything associated with gender—they merely lubricate the eyes. Humans are the only species who actually cry for emotional reasons aside from pain. According to Oren Hasson, MD, of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology: “Crying is a highly evolved behavior—tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another.” His research, published in Evolutionary Psychology, indicates that, “tears lower defences and reliably function as signals of submission [or] a cry for help.”
Is this act of submission or desire for help unmanly? Dale Curd, a therapist and men’s specialist, has found that while these signals aren’t necessarily unmanly, men and women alike have been conditioned to think so. “We’ve all heard ‘Men don’t cry’ and it has become a part of what society expects of men,” says Curd. “Even the term ‘crybaby’ clearly connects the act of crying with being infantile,” Curd states. He adds that, “men aren’t crying for the same reason women tend to shield their tears from others: It’s viewed as a weakness by themselves and everyone else around them.”
But maybe the stigma isn’t something that depends on the crier, more than the people witnessing the act of crying. According to Stephanie Shields, a professor of women’s studies at Penn State University, “When tears are shed, they have a powerful effect on others…crying is understood as not only a reflection of internal feelings but also as a form of social communication. The way tears are judged by others is affected by many factors, including the gender of both the crier and observer, whether the tears are perceived as angry or sad.”
Remember when University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was labeled Tearbow for crying after losing the 2009 Southeastern Championships? While the media predictably swarmed on the young quarterback, the perceptions of his moment of sadness among his peers showed a change. According to research published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity that was conducted by psychologist Y Joel Wong, “The college football players in our study who believed…crying was appropriate had higher self-esteem.” The players who thought the crying was inappropriate generally had lower self esteem.
With that in mind, the perception of crying, especially that which stipulates male tears are unmanly, is actually changing. Shields’ research indicates that since September 11, 2001, a man crying has become acceptable in situations considered extreme like a death in the family or the end of a significant relationship though not as welcoming to tears over lesser instances like a computer crash. The research also indicates that men who cry get the benefit of the doubt more than women. “It stands to reason that if you see a man openly crying, he’s probably at a true moment of breakdown,” said Curd, “so it would make sense that people would believe the moment was genuine and illicit true feelings of empathy.”
Regardless of how people feel about the act of crying, Curd believes that each individual males thoughts about sadness should have no connection to an outsider’s perception. “Trying to keep emotions buried like this to seem manly is actually damaging to our psychological well-being,” says Curd. He added that, “instead of training generations of men to hide their feelings and then wonder why they are not emotionally available, as a society we should foster acceptance of all emotions from both genders and all age groups.”
What does that mean for the everyday guy? Go ahead and cry if you want to. By bucking the demands of others on how you should live your life, shedding a tear or two may yet be the manliest decision you’ll ever make.