REAR WINDOW / PUBLIC TEARS: The crying game: what a difference a few decades makes

Share
THEY cry now, but they did not cry then, at least not in public. The 10 days that have followed the death of Sir Matt Busby, days of tributes, flowers and minutes of silence, have brought forth tears from both the fans and their heroes. Sir Matt was held in great affection by many, and they showed it.

When the television tributes recalled the Munich crash of 1958, however, they told another story of public mourning. Here again a minute of silence was observed at sports events around the country, but when the newsreels panned around the crowds they showed solemnity, not tears. Some may have cried, but the broadcasters did not dwell upon them.

Today, a popular man dies in the fullness of his years and his admirers weep. In another era, half a team of young sportsmen are robbed of their futures by a crash and the nation responds with studied stoicism. It is a striking testimony to the power of social restraint.

There was another example of this last week. After the death of Brian Redhead, many listeners wrote to the Today programme to express their sadness, and a number of the letters read out spoke of tears shed at the news. But when, as an example of Redhead's journalism, Today replayed his recollections of the Munich crash, he spoke of Manchester people in 1958 'frozen' in the street on learning the news. Frozen, but not crying.

High and low alike, we cry now in a way that we did not a generation ago.

Tears are produced mainly by the lacrimal gland, an almond-shaped sliver of tissue tucked under the bone of the eye socket just above the eyeball. Most of the time, it produces about one microlitre per minute, enough to keep the surface of the eye moist. When we cry, that increases by 50 or 100 times and the tears flood over the pupil to the point where vision is impaired.

This can happen for two reasons, either as a reflex response to an irritation of the eye, when the effect is to wash away the irritant, or because of an emotional stimulus. Many scientists believe that tears of emotion contain certain chemicals related to stress, and that stress is relieved by allowing them to spill out - giving a medical basis to the notion that 'a good cry' leaves you feeling better.

It seems likely that some nationalities cry more than others. No comparative work has been done on the British, but William Frey, who runs a tear research centre in Minnesota, points to work which shows that Hungarian women cry 3.1 times a month while American women cry 5.3 times a month, and Hungarian men cry 0.7 times a month, against 1.4 times a month for American men.

That said, the notion that British people do not cry - the 'stiff upper lip' of national caricature - may not be as old as we imagine. Historians believe that the Victorians cried relatively readily and it is only over the past 80 years or so that restraint has been the rule.

Even today, few of us welcome tears when they come. We still fight them and try to conceal them. As Dr Frey, author of Crying and the Mystery of Tears, puts it: 'In any given instance, it is clear that we can't control this. But in a more general way people appear able to condition themselves out of crying by separating themselves from their feelings.'

It is this conditioning that appears to have weakened. Dr John Tiffany, of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology in Oxford, suggests that the collective tear threshold has shifted downward. 'Perhaps there has been an alteration in our willingness to accept certain levels of stress,' he says. Why this should be so is a matter of guesswork. Society as a whole is certainly more tolerant of displays of emotion. Television also explores distress in a way never done before, making tears more familiar.

The world wars, which made sudden bereavement commonplace and stoicism a necessity, and which in 1958 were still a matter of recent memory, are much more remote to us today.

(Photographs omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching jobs in the Swaffham area

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Are you a fully quali...

Year 1 Teachers needed for day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary General Cover Teachers needed

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Year 2 Teachers needed for day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Gordon Brown’s finest hour, a letter from Quebec and the problem of anti-politics

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week