Our cultural consensus on male crying can be summed up by a scene in The Godfather.
The one where Don Vito Corleone slaps the weeping singer Johnny Fontane and screams, “You can act like a man!” We like to think we’re more evolved, that we’ve moved beyond masculinity clichés. But remember how you felt the last time you saw a man cry? When a woman cries, we want to comfort her. But when a guy tears up, we recoil and enter panic mode. “What’s happening? Did your dog die? Do you have cancer?”
On some level we know crying is okay. But knowing that and acting on it are very different. Most of us would rather get advice on erectile dysfunction from a father-in-law than let a single tear roll down our cheeks. That can’t be healthy, right?
We asked Andrew Reiner, a Towson University professor who teaches a seminar called “Real Men Smile: The Changing Face of Masculinity,” to talk about man tears—and whether we should rethink our relationship with them.
Men’s Health: Talking about crying is hard. Just the idea of it makes me want to throw a football at your nuts and then shotgun a beer.
[Laughs.] Well sure, you’re a guy. That’s what guys do.
But why? What’s the big deal about crying?
That’s the big question. One of the things I always ask my students is, what if we had a world where guys were allowed to show a bigger range of emotions? What if we gave them the free pass we give to girls and women? Would the world really look any different? Would less get done?
No, sure, you’re right. But it’s one thing to understand that intellectually, it’s another to be able to walk up to another guy and say, “Just hold me, bro, and feel the warmth of my salty tears on your shoulders.”
Yeah, yeah, I get it. I remember the first time I cried in public as an adult. I was on a plane with my girlfriend, and I knew our relationship was pretty much over. I just started sobbing. And I didn’t hide it. When people looked at me, I looked right back.
Wow. You weepily stared down strangers? That’s sounds more difficult than the crying.
Exactly. Because for a guy, our natural instinct is to hide our tears. But I wanted everybody to know, yeah, I’m a guy and I’m crying. It felt liberating. Like I was casting off shackles.
Even if it were culturally acceptable for men to cry, would we want to? Do men get the same sense of physical and emotional relief from crying that women do?
I think so, yeah. There was a study at Tel Aviv University just last year, which found that the male brain and the female brain are structurally very similar. The way they both cognitively function is almost identical. So a lot of our behavior we think is uniquely male or female, it’s just social construction. Men avoid crying for the same reasons we avoid being overcome with joy.
We do? How do we avoid joy?
I mean that unconstrained, unguarded joy. When you’re just so enthusiastic and giddy, you can’t keep it in. For men in our culture, that’s a sign of vulnerability. How often do you see guys running around with glee on their faces?
Maybe while playing sports.
Yeah, but that’s it. Can you imagine if we acted like that in our everyday lives? My god, people would think you’re completely mentally challenged. But it didn’t used to be that way. Men used to laugh more, they used to cry more and smile more.
Really? Because if you look at 19th century photos, men seem to be mostly scowling.
That’s because those old photographs took so long. Nobody’s going to smile if you’re sitting there, perfectly still, for hours. People see those photos and think, “Oh yeah, men were so hard and severe back then.” That’s not true. If you look at men’s journals at the time, they were every bit as emotional as women, sometimes more so. It was much more common for American men to have very intimate friendships with each other. They shared sadness and joy with each other. There wasn’t this stupid notion that crying showed weakness.
So how’d we get here?
The social norms changed. This whole notion of the self-made man and rugged individualist came into fashion. It doesn’t lend itself to emotional vulnerability. You have to show that you’re in control, that you’ve got your shit together.
We want women to think we’re in control, or other men?
Both, but that protective nature is strongest with our male friends. We’re wary of confiding in each other or showing too much vulnerability, because we’re terrified of being found out, betrayed or rejected. I think a lot of guys have this running loop in their heads, “What do they think of me? Do I look like a joke? Do I look weak or foolish?” That fear stops you from showing any kind of real emotion.
Again, that makes sense in theory. But what the hell are we supposed to do with that? Should we just start crying in front of our friends?
Well . . .
There is no way that’s happening. Even though I agree with everything you’re saying, I’m not going to be the guy in an all-male social gathering who says, “Hey fellas, who’s up for some platonic hugging and then crying about our fathers?”
It’s an ongoing evolution. You look for ways to be more emotionally honest. I’ve started drinking more wine in front of guys.
Wait, what? [Laughs.] Drinking wine is more emotionally honest?
You know as well as I do, if you’re out with guys and you order wine, it says something.
I thought it says, “I like wine,” but now you’ve got me worried that I’ve been sending out the wrong signals.
See, that’s it right there. We need to stop worrying about the signals we’re sending to our male friends. I really think our friendships are key. We need to get back to the emotional vulnerability our grandparents and great-grandparents had with each other. Guys today have become more isolated and more alienated. If you’re a guy, you’ve always been taught that you handle things on your own, that you don’t go around confiding in people, and it’s a sign of weakness if you seek out help. But that’s bullshit.
(This story appeared, in a slightly different form, in the October 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)