We do it in our cars, bedrooms, maybe at work, alone or with loved ones, and perhaps in front of strangers: crying, that is. It’s innate in all of us. It may seem like a remarkably basic concept, but it has plenty of hidden depth. We frequently cried as babies and children, as a biological way to convey our needs, i.e. hunger. But it gets more complicated as adults.
Why do we cry? And when is it “appropriate?” When does it show weakness? Strength? Those questions sparked the idea for my podcast, “As I Lay Crying,” which will explore the various biological and sociocultural facets of crying. More importantly, it will tell stories of hardships and joys, and what it means to be human — all through the universal peg of crying.
I recently held a podcast discussion during which fifteen people opened up about reasons they’ve cried. In this “safe space,” almost everyone shared relatable and poignant experiences that resonated with the entire group. Topics like familial issues, relationship woes, and struggles with identity and body image were mentioned. There was visceral empathy and sympathy throughout. Most of it came from the women in the group.
Of the fifteen individuals present, only five were men. And only four of those men contributed. One spoke about how he rarely cries, another about how he comforts others often but seldom expresses his own emotions, and another on the stigma associated with being male and crying. Just one spoke about how he cries regularly and comfortably. Most of the women, however, voiced that they are comfortable with it.
While this small discussion is in no way representative of the general public, it was in line with statistics that show that men cry less often than women. According to an article that references clinical psychologist Ad Vingerhoets’ research — which included 5,000 people in 37 countries — women cry 30 to 64 times a year, whereas men cry only six to 17 times per year. Men cry for an average of two to three minutes versus six minutes for women. (This is self-reported, so it’s possible that men are underreporting.)
The American Psychological Association study, “Why we cry,” notes that this gender discrepancy can be caused by biological reasons. The study states that testosterone may hinder crying. On the other hand, the hormone prolactin (which women have more of) may promote it. It is also possible that women have shallower tear ducts.
This incongruity can moreover be caused by socialization. Men, from a young age, may be taught to believe that crying is less acceptable than it is for women. They may feel that it is emasculating and inappropriate. Women may be raised feeling less of this pressure to suppress emotion. A clinical psychologist I interviewed, Dr. Christopher Kaeppner, backs this up based on his own observations as a practicing psychologist.
“Men have been socialized under the idea that to be strong means to hold back on emotions… maybe not just crying, but certainly [including] crying,” he explains. “Whereas women, I think, often traditionally… the traditional feminine stereotype is more accepting of a broader range of emotional reaction than in men.”
But he says that in general there seems to be a stigma when it comes to crying in front of others. This applies to both genders. As a therapist, Kaeppner talks to his clients about their many personal issues and tries to provide guidance. Some of what’s discussed is very emotional, as expected, yet his clients don’t always feel comfortable crying around him.
“When clients cry, I notice that a lot of [them] apologize almost immediately. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And literally, they’re in a therapist’s office and there are tissues on either table next to them,” he says. “So it’s like I’m saying, ‘It’s okay to do this.’ They take a little coaching, at that point, to see me accepting them.”
When asked why this is the case, Kaeppner says it could be because criers perceive their action to trigger discomfort in others. The others witnessing an individual cry may feel restless or activated, he explains, like they need to do something to fix the problem. He compares the crier to someone who is drowning.
“Now literally, if a person is drowning it makes sense that you’d be activated because you need to jump in and save them,” he explains. “But the crying can kind of trigger a similar response in other people, in that they [feel like they] need to do something, which can create an awkward situation where the person is crying and there is literally nothing the other person can do to fix it.”
He likewise postulates that there is an underlying belief that crying reflects weakness, or the possibility of some kind of breakdown or disruption in functioning. In this case, people may hold back in order to appear “strong,” even regardless of gender. But Kaeppner says this isn’t healthy. He explains that there are appropriate times to cry and there are ways to “cry better.” He also talks about how it hurts men to hold back on their emotions more than women. These are all concepts I’ll include in the first episode of the podcast.
It’s important to remember that people don’t only cry solely because they’re sad or seeking therapy. They cry for a multitude of ‘everyday’ reasons: because they’re happy, touched, angry, jealous, bitter, confused, anxious. Or all of the above. So I hope this podcast will make crying — whether in private or public, and whether you’re male or female — less of a stigma. And I hope it will be a way for rich, universal stories to resonate with listeners.
**The first episode will be released later this week. Follow @belindafcai on Twitter for a link to the episode (streaming, iTunes) when it is released.
Originally written for Acro Collective: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.