Spare us the sob story: The lost art of stoicism

From Republican candidates to reality TV contestants, you can't move for weepers. But is visible emotion to be applauded? Peter Stanford thinks we need to reclaim the lost art of stoicism

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"Your water's too near your eyes." The voice of my Liverpool grandmother echoed in my head as I watched Republican John Boehner celebrate his re-election to the House of Representatives in the US midterm elections by bursting into tears during his victory speech in Ohio.

She may have been partial to conservative politicians – Anthony Eden was her pin-up – but she couldn't stomach a man who cried. If she'd voted for Boehner, I reflected, she would have been demanding her ballot paper back.

Granny Fleming is long dead, and with her, it seems, has gone the attitude she embodied – that men who blubbed were revealing themselves as weak and unreliable. This wasn't just a prejudice held in the unsentimental world of working-class Liverpool, however.

In the 1972 US presidential campaign, Democratic hopeful Edmund Muskie was the front-runner until newspaper reports about his wife's drinking prompted him to give an impromptu press conference one snowy evening in New England to deny the rumour so fervently that he started to cry. It was the end of his campaign. He later protested that the cold had irritated his eyes and set them off, but the electors had decided in that moment that Muskie was unstable and therefore unsuitable for the White House.

Fast-forward almost 40 years and, by contrast, what Americans call "tearing up" has ushered Boehner, as leader of the Republicans in the Lower House, into the third most powerful role in the US political hierarchy – Speaker of the House of Representatives. And this wasn't an isolated outburst. Boehner has form in what Private Eye prefers to label "getting out the onions". He even managed once to shed a tear at the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan.

The cowboy-president himself wasn't averse to misting up in public from time to time, especially at the sight of the Stars and Stripes. Both Bushes also choked up on occasion – usually when confronted with the human cost of their military adventures. Bill Clinton did a nice line, when under pressure, of wiping a finger artfully under his eyelid to draw attention to an impending flood. And Barack Obama, the President now being punished by voters for being cold and detached, welled up on the eve of his historic 2008 election victory, when his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died one day short of seeing the boy she had raised shake off the racial prejudice they had both faced, to reach the White House.

As I write that line I feel my eyes pricking. Despite my mother inheriting her own mother's attitude to tears – in a 40-year battle with multiple sclerosis, arthritis and finally cancer, I never once saw her cry – my own water is perpetually not just near my eyes, but running down my cheeks. It happens about big things that hit me hard, such as the death of loved ones. It happens at one stage removed when I read about and watch others' lives – that bit at the end of Sense of Sensibility when Elinor Dashwood realises Edward Ferrars isn't married, as she had thought, and can be hers, or when Nana thanks daughter Barbara, busy giving her a terrible perm, for allowing her to die in the bosom of the family in Caroline Aherne's peerless The Royle Family.

And it happens at little everyday things – the sight of my too-tall teenage son reaching down to take his little sister's hand as they walk along the road together.

It seems I am not alone in being a male crybaby. Men, whether they be politicians, superstar sportsmen, or dads watching The X Factor with their kids when a hopeful tells the judges about the dream of a singing career that sustains them through an otherwise miserable life, are blubbing with an ever-increasing frequency.

A survey by the Social Issues Research Centre (in conjunction with Kleenex – who else?) found that fully 99 per cent of women and 77 per cent of men feel it has become more acceptable in the past 20 years for men to cry.

This is, as far as I am concerned, a welcome rejection of the sort of stereotyping that damned men who cried, and sank Muskie's presidential run. The ability to hold in tears is no longer seen as the tell-tale attribute of a real man. Quite the opposite. Many now take such restraint as an indicator of the sort of stiff-upper-lip emotional repression that distanced generations of men from their emotions and from their children. So by crying in front of my son, I hope I am teaching him what I had to work out for myself with no parental encouragement – that big boys do cry and are none the worse for it. Indeed, having a good cry often makes me feel a who lot better.

Quite how far the message has got through to him, though, I'm not sure. He is now 14 and I am still waiting for him to weep for anyone other than himself, despite repeated exposure to film versions of Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson solicits sobs) and – another sure-fire cue for my own tear ducts – a poignant story-song by (dead) American folkster, Harry Chapin,A Better Place to Be. Indeed, my boy seems to regard my lachrymal displays as an eccentricity he has to indulge but not copy, which roughly places him in line with what scientific research has identified as a continuing male-female gap when it come to crying.

When they are children, boys and girls cry on average the same amount. Once they approach adulthood, however, the male of the species restricts itself – again on average – to one cry for every five that women clock up. In my grandmother's day, crying was readily identified as one of the distinguishing features between men and women. Today, that differential is being eroded but still exists. The science of crying, meanwhile, is relatively little explored. There is still, for example, little consensus on quite why we cry, and why some people do it so much more than others, but one of the triggers for the lachrymal glands to give out salty secretions is thought to be the need to release stress. So what science calls "emotional tears" (rather than "basal" tears, needed to keep the eyes lubricated, or "reflex" tears, caused by, for example, chopping onions) contain certain chemicals that the body produces to cope with stress, notably the hormone prolactin, which is present in higher levels in women than men.

So, it may just be that this new generation of male blubbers is actually going against nature, which designed women to cry more. What makes this tension between social mores and science all the more intriguing is the fact that our attitudes to female tears are also changing.

Take the example of Nancy Pelosi, the woman who John Boehner is to replace in January as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Faced with a landslide against Democrat candidates which swept away 60-plus of her colleagues, despite her tireless efforts in crisscrossing the country to shore up floundering campaigns, did Pelosi allow herself a Boehner moment and sob into her hankie on election night? No, she didn't.

For a woman politician to cry in public risks playing to outdated but still extant prejudices about the weaker sex and its unsuitability for high office. So in January 2008 when, during the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton welled up as Barack Obama was remorselessly taking away the Democratic nomination, which for so long had seemed destined to be hers, it was immediately seized upon as a sign of her (female) fragility. "I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve," said her Democratic rival, John Edwards, by way of response. "Presidential campaigns are a tough business, but being president of the United States is also a very tough business."

When it comes to crying, it is a case of the more the better for men in the public eye, but the opposite for women. Margaret Thatcher only allowed herself to shed a tear in front of the cameras on two occasions – at a church service, shortly after the IRA had tried to assassinate her and her entire Cabinet at Brighton in 1984, and in June 1991 on her enforced departure from Downing Street.

The second occasion – as she got into her official Jaguar for the last time – was taken at the time as an overdue sign that the Iron Lady did indeed have feelings. For in the crying game, women are between a rock and a hard place. If they do cry, they are weak and therefore wrong for high office – or even an Oscar, as it was said after Gwyneth Paltrow's 1999 sodden acceptance speech. If they don't, they are regarded as suspect. Kate McCann's failure to cry was much commented upon when her daughter, Madeleine, disappeared in 2007 on a family holiday in Portugal. Armchair psychologists took it as a sign of a guilty conscience.

The same unjust fate befell British tourist, Joanne Lees, who failed the tear-test after she survived a terrifying ordeal in the Australian outback in 2001, which claimed the life of her boyfriend, Peter Falconio.

When Judith Keppel, a distant relative of the Duchess of Cornwall, became the first person to hit the jackpot in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, 10 years ago now, her failure to sob on Chris Tarrant's shoulder was taken as proof positive of ugly rumours that she was cheating.

And when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the summer of 1997, the nation rose almost as one to demand that the Queen, trained to the nth degree in dry-eyed restraint and old-school phlegmatism, discard the habits of a lifetime and join the rest of us in weeping and wailing as a way of proving she was grieving.

Some women do manage to walk the line between these two extremes and emerge triumphant. Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary and a minister better known for her caravan holidays than her displays of emotions, perfectly caught the mood at the funeral of John Smith in 1994 when, as acting Labour leader, there was just a catch in her voice as she paid public tribute to him. That moment now seems a long, long time ago – and not just because of all that has happened to Labour since. We are now awash with tears – female and male.

If global warming doesn't sink us, the river of public tears will. What was once the exceptional sight of a man letting it all pour out in public – Paul Gascoigne's outburst in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup melted our hearts to the man we had previously seen as a lout and earned him his own eternally leaky Spitting Image puppet – is now so commonplace that we are starting to grow cynical. As multiple dams burst every week on The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent (though thankfully not yet on Mastermind or University Challenge), many smile a knowing smile and refuse to be blackmailed into voting for the blubber.

Modern male tears, of course, are as open to manipulation as women's ever have been. Think Bob Hawke, Australian prime minister through much of the Eighties, who sobbed "I am only human" on national TV, in an attempt to persuade voters to forgive him for cheating on his wife of 33 years. Through the tears, he promised fidelity ever after, but once this very public display of contrition had done the trick with the electorate, he dumped the first Mrs Hawke and remarried.

Perhaps that creeping cynicism explains why, when John Boehner choked as he began (once again) his own rags-to-riches tale on the victory podium, there was a moment when the rest of the party on the platform and the crowd fell silent. It felt as if they could have gone either way – alienated by what they saw as a cynical play for applause by a man who has a history of turning on the waterworks, or warmed to their core by his earthy honesty, emotional openness and sincerity.

After what felt like an eternity – though it was probably only a few beats – they opted for the latter and became to cheer and clap. He had just retained his seat, after all, and they were the party faithful. But in that split second, they warned us that men crying is no longer the instant winner it has been in recent years.

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