Despite a lot of talk, grown men still don't cry in public

July 22, 1992|By The Hartford Courant

This guy who works at TSI Harley-Davidson in Ellington, Conn., has not cried since three years ago in May, when his dog, Rusty, died.

"I'm a rock," the guy says, and he means it.

Does his wife, to whom he has been married half his life, ever ask him to express his feelings?

"Nope."

Does she cry?

"Yes."

And that's all right?

"I didn't say that."

Andre Agassi won at Wimbledon, and he cried like a baby. He also dropped his racket, fell to his knees and then to his face, flat on his stomach on Centre Court. He had been considered a long shot, and he was surprised, he said later, to have finally achieved his dream.

If you saw the tournament, you probably had one of two reactions to his crying.

The subject of men and public tears comes to light every time a public figure -- a male one, anyway -- cries where we can see him. To some, it is a mark of honor and strength to be able to cry.

To others, it is a bit of a squeamish event -- as evidenced by the Harley guy, who did not want his name connected with the passing of his beloved dog.

(We're not talking about private displays of emotions. Ask just about any woman, and you'll find someone who appreciates her mate's ability to cry. But let the man break down in public, and it's a whole new ballgame.)

Most men, for all the discussions about iron men and feelings, don't cry -- or won't admit to it. It may vary. A younger man may have a more open attitude toward crying, but overall, don't look for tears on his face.

"Strength and not crying are synonymous," said Michele Toomey, founder of the Women's Workshop in Bloomfield, Conn. "Even women, when they're allowed to cry, are not looked at as strong. When Jackie Kennedy didn't cry at the whole funeral procession, she was considered a woman of great strength and courage. I was wishing she had broken down and sobbed. She'd just had her husband's head blown off in her lap, and it was considered courageous that she didn't cry.

"You take that approach, and you put men in the equation, and they are supposed to be strong."

Unless, that is, a man's tears are connected to a sports event. Magic Johnson, a member of the Olympic basketball Dream Team, cried when he announced his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers last November because he had contracted the AIDS virus. So did a lot of people -- men and women -- who listened to him.

Lou Gehrig cried when he gave his farewell speech in 1939 in Yankee Stadium. From a Hartford Courant story: There "wasn't a throat among the 61,108 spectators into which a lump didn't bob up to make swallowing difficult."

In other areas of life, crying men are still taboo unless, of course, the man is standing in the delivery room, watching the birth of his baby, or in some other way celebrating an accomplishment. Then it's OK.

More often, it's not.

Take, for example, the taboo against men crying while they are in physical pain. Conrad Schwarz, University of Connecticut professor of psychology, said men are taught not to cry if the injury is physical.

"Part of the socialization of males for toughness and to be macho involves sanctions for crying in the presence of pain," Mr. Schwarz said. "I think that's related to issues around dominance and competition."

In other words, you shouldn't cry in front of your enemy. Edmund Muskie proved that. During the presidential primaries in 1972, about the time the women's movement was heating up, he publicly chastised a newspaper publisher who had published a letter insulting Mr. Muskie's wife. The candidate burst into tears and was never a serious contender after that. That was 20 years ago, but imagine what would have happened to Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton if he had sobbed in public over the press' early mistrust of his wife, Hillary.

Jesus may have wept (John 11:35) when he was getting ready to bring back to life a dead friend, but there is no record of him crying while he hung on the cross.

Ms. Toomey said that crying at funerals is acceptable for men, but only in measured amounts.

"It's still considered more courageous if they don't," Ms. Toomey said. "If they're trying to show love for someone, there's a way that compassion is allowed. It doesn't look so much like weakness, because it's a proof of love."

Mr. Schwarz agreed that crying over a lost loved one -- or loved dog -- is acceptable for most men.

"Crying is a care-soliciting behavior," he said. "When we see it in children, its function seems to be to solicit care. When we see it in people who've lost a loved one, the function is similar -- to draw other members of one's group to one to provide aid and comfort."

For that reason, crying on the job is not considered acceptable for men or women.

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