‘Real men don’t cry,’ goes the adage. And as is expected of them, even if men well up at a funeral, or shed an inconspicuous tear or two when they are distraught, they quickly regain composure. Researches too find that men cry significantly lesser than women. Statistical data published by the US-based Statistic Brain Research Institute reveals that women weep at least five times more than men on average.
Agreed. Men do not cry as much as women. But why? “Crying only makes us look vulnerable and incapable,” says Suresh R, a software professional. Ask Balaji Subramanian, a marketing professional, and he says, “I do not cry in public or in front of my friends. It is embarrassing.” Clearly, men find it difficult to express their emotions freely. Most probably feel anxious about how they might be perceived by others. After all, men have long been conditioned by society to think that crying is a display of weakness.
Warwick University’s History Professor Bernard Capp sheds light on how this social conditioning came to be. In a university article, he writes how the very idea of ‘how a man should behave‘ has undergone changes. He explains that over centuries, societal response to a man’s tears has altered widely owing to cultural shifts. And he further explains that there are historical evidences which suggest no one viewed tears as a thing of shame up until the 14th century.
For instance, in the 4th century autobiographical book The Confessions of St Augustine, the theologian St Augustine of Hippo writes of sobbing uncontrollably. Similarly, in a famous letter which Monk Jerome wrote to St Julia Eustochium, he mentions being ‘drenched with tears’ on at least eight occasions. In fact, weeping was so prevalent amongst saints that crying became a central part of worship! Tears represented piety, sincerity, and repentance.
Taking examples from ancient literature, Professor Capp also points out how several protagonists not only got teary, but literally wept. The 8th century epic Greek poem Iliad, by Homer, mentions the legendary king Odysseus weeping on several occasions for his home, friends and family. Despite getting emotional, Odysseus was seen as an exemplary hero by ancient Greeks. The Tale of Heike, a Japanese epic written towards the end of the 12th century AD, portrays several men crying on various occasions. Remarkably, they do not bother to hide their tears. As the tale goes, these men cry with their heads held high. In fact, this piece of writing is known to have portrayed ‘the ideal behaviour of a samurai’.
In all possibility, centuries of social conditioning resulted in the stoic males of the 20th century. Men who cried were perceived as weak or even effeminate.
However, perspectives started to change from the 14th century AD. Elite men of the Renaissance era started to restrain their emotions out of civility and decorum. A man who wept was soon perceived as uneducated and ‘ungentlemanly’. By the dawn of the Victorian Era in the 19th century, men of all social strata had begun to view crying as a sign of weakness. With the advent of urbanisation, men began working in offices and factories with a sole intent to increase profits. Emotional outbursts were considered ‘unproductive’ and therefore, discouraged. During this period, even public schools started teaching boys that weeping is for the feeble minds.
In all possibility, centuries of social conditioning resulted in the stoic males of the 20th century. Men who cried were perceived as weak or even effeminate. For instance, when Senator Edmond Muskie, a contender for the US presidential elections, shed tears (defending his wife against personal attacks) at a press conference in 1972, his political image as a ‘calm and reasonable candidate’ shattered, and his career took a nosedive.
Late 20th century onwards, the societal perception changed once again. Former US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all got emotional during press conferences, with no loss of reputation. The license to cry also extended to sportsmen and celebrities. Basketball players LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and tennis player Roger Federer shed tears after winning (or losing) trophies. Celebrities like Jamie Foxx, Jeff Bridges and John Wayne too were emotional while accepting the Oscars. The public and the media no longer ridiculed such an open display of feelings. Instead, they became more open-minded regarding men expressing their sensitive side in public.
Perhaps, after centuries of restraining men from expressing themselves, the world is once again gearing up for an attitudinal shift. With politicians and celebrities expressing their sensitive side freely, it is just a matter of time before the common man follows suit. Who knows? The 21st century might just turn out to be an era when men break free from the age-old social conditioning and let their tears flow. Perhaps, with time, they will realise it takes a strong man to wear his heart on his sleeve.