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A Crying Shame

When is crying allowed in boys and girls?

Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.  William Shakespeare

When was the last time you cried?

Shedding tears plays an important role in keeping the eyes lubricated and protecting them from irritation, but crying can also happen whenever we feel strong joy, pain, or sadness. Though why humans cry is still a mystery in many ways, researchers  have demonstrated that men are far less likely to cry than women, a finding that has been replicated across thirty-five countries and four continents.     

Even though boys express a wider range of emotions than girls do as infants, boys are typically discouraged from showing their emotions as they grow older due to traditional ideas about masculinity and gender roles. Crying frequency between boys and girls shows little difference until the age of eleven or twelve when girls overtake boys. 

Being told that "big boys don't cry," boys are socialized against any display of strong emotion considered inappropriate while crying is specifically targeted as being "feminine" behaviour.    There can be enormous culture differences over when and under what circumstances men and women are allowed to cry but men are often expected to be more stoic and unemotional in most situations.

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That crying is a sign of weakness and a reason for shame is a lesson most males learn by the time they reach adolescence. Whether by "swallowing tears" or actively avoiding situations that might lead to crying,  males actively suppress their emotions or express them in other ways that seem more suitable for their gender roles. Females, on the other hand, are more free to express their emotions publicly and crying is more accepted than it is for males.  

Rigid gender roles have loosened slightly in recent decades with "sensitive" males becoming more widely accepted,  even for politicians.  While allegations of public crying doomed Edward Muskie's presidential bid in 1972,  Barack Obama, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have all demonstrated their emotional side on camera with no loss of reputation.  John Boehner has cried on camera often enough to earn him the nickname of "Weeper of the House"  with little political fallout.

Though crying among men seems more tolerated, there are still strong biases against men crying in public. In a 2001 study of undergraduate males in the United States, only 23 percent of males reported crying when feeling helpless as opposed to 58 percent of females with similar sex differences being noted in the United Kingdom and Israel.   

Crying due to sadness seems more acceptable for males but crying due to anger is not.  A 2008 study found that only two percent of American males believed themselves likely of crying due to anger as opposed to 51 percent of women. Crying while fighting with a loved one appears more acceptable for women as well, a finding that has held up in numerous international studies. The difference appears linked to women feeling less free to express anger openly than males due to conflicting gender roles.

Due to early socialization, sex differences in crying seems well-established by the time children become adolescents. A recent research study published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity examined197 adolescents aged thirteen to seventeen (96 boys and 101 girls), all recruited from British schools. Conducted by researchers from Durham University, the study focused on adolescents since puberty marks a period in life when emotional experience is especially intense for boys and girls and the pressure to comply with gender roles is strong. Focusing specifically on crying due to sadness or anger, the researchers examined both forms of crying and how gender determined where and when crying was considered appropriate. 

Based on self-report questionnaires and personality measurea, crying was more likely due to sadness than anger for both boys and girls.  Girls also scored higher than boys on measures of depression, femininity, and empathy. They also scored more highly than boys on frequency and intensity of episodes of sadness although anger episodes appeared about the same for both boys and girls.   Despite stereotypes about crying when angry being seen as "feminine" in boys, angry crying in boys was not associated with a more feminine gender role.

Overall, study results were consistent with other research looking at sex differences in crying.    Gender was a strong predictor of sad crying even when gender role (femininity) was taken into account.  Sadness frequency was strongly correlated with depression and appeared to be the strongest predictor of crying while empathy alone was not a significant predictor of crying.  

For boys however, depression increases the likelihood of angry crying which is hardly surprising since irritability is one of diagnostic criteria for depression in children and adolescents.  Depressed men are also more reluctant to discuss crying with their doctors and prefer to discuss their sadness and anger symptoms instead. Rather than crying while angry, boys prefer to externalize their anger by aggressive acting-out, whether verbal or physical. Boys are also more likely than girls to want privacy when they cry while this seems to be less of a concern as they grow older. 

Though the study did not go into actual differences in the way boys and girls cry, i.e. actual sobbing vs. less visible displays of tears, the authors suggest that the greater reluctance of boys to be seen crying may affect the intensity of crying when it does occur.   As depression in adolescents is strongly associated with bullying behaviour,  the inability of many victims to retaliate directly can lead to increased likelihood of crying behaviour though this can often be interpreted as a sign of weakness by bullies and their victims alike. 

While this study are based on self-report, which may distort the findings, and also does not explore cultural differences in crying for both males and females, the results seem surprising in many ways. Traditionally,  crying has tended to be viewed as "feminine" in many cultures although the study found that even boys who were less stereotypically "masculine" were more reluctant to cry than girls. Still, those sex differences were most apparent in terms of crying from anger rather than sadness. Boys experiencing depression seemed much more likely to ignore sex-role expectations about hiding tears than otherwise.

Though crying in public seems more acceptable than it once was, at least under certain circumstances, the pressure on males and females to abide by sex-role expectations about crying is stilll strong, especially as adolescents. Whether the tears are due to sadness, anger, or happiness, the fear of being judged by others can play an important role in the way people express emotions. Understanding these social pressures might provide important insights into how people respond to the pressures of life.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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