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

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)