Tearing up a taboo

Suddenly, the stereotype of the stoic male is being washed away. Or is it?

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 8, 2011

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Speaker of the House John Boehner dabbed tears away Wednesday while waiting for Nancy Pelosi to hand him the gavel. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, choked up last month while delivering a farewell to departing Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. And, at the other extreme of celebrity, overnight sensation Ted Williams, the homeless man hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers this week, cried on the “Today’’ show Thursday when talking about his mother.

It’s enough to make one think that it’s suddenly become acceptable for men to cry in public.

Yet despite all the high-profile bawling, regular guys say they’re no more comfortable tearing up in front of others.

“I was taught by my father very early on not to cry,’’ said Chris Azzoto, 44, an optician who works in Brookline and Newton. “I have those feelings, but I never let them out.’’ He said he wishes he could cry because he knows doing so can bring relief, “but that would be revealing myself, and it would be a negative thing. It would be a show of weakness.’’

Shane Reti, 47, a primary care doctor from Brookline, said he prefers to express sadness in other ways — by telling people he is sad rather than crying. Crying, he fears, might be misinterpreted as inauthentic — a criticism some have leveled at Boehner — or it might make others wonder: “Is this a person who can’t conduct himself appropriately?’’

Why does Boehner get to cry, while the outgoing speaker of the House — who really had something to be upset about — grinned her way through the gavel exchange?

Robert N. Minor, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Kansas, said only winners have the luxury of shedding tears.

“There are certain rules, a manhood code about when you can and cannot cry,’’ said Minor, who is on the board of the nonprofit American Men’s Studies Association. “It’s OK to cry once you have already proven, particularly to other men, that you have fulfilled the manhood code. . . . That’s after they have defeated another man.’’

In other words, wet cheeks are for winners. Of course, that didn’t stop University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow from crying on national television as his team was losing its championship game to Alabama a year ago.

In general, only the strong can cry. Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre bawled in 2008 when he announced one of his retirements, and former Bruins star Cam Neely used to cry in public, with no loss of stature. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole never suffered politically from tearing up. Still, back in 1972, Democrat Edmund S. Muskie’s tears — or alleged tears; they may have been melting snow — helped kill his shot at the presidential nomination.

And there’s another group of politicians who are not allowed to cry: women. Imagine if Pelosi wept her way through Wednesday’s gavel passing, instead of Boehner. People are still talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tears at a New Hampshire campaign stop, even though “not a drop of liquid fell below her lower lash,’’ Rebecca Traister, the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women,’’ told The New York Times.

It’s been almost four decades since football player Rosie Grier crooned, “It’s all right to cry/Crying gets the sad out of you’’ on the “Free to Be You and Me’’ children’s album and TV show. But a crying man — Boehner included — often makes others feel uncomfortable, said Kevin Nadal, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“People usually communicate (directly or indirectly) that they should terminate the tears,’’ he wrote in an e-mail.

And crying women, of course, can make men uncomfortable.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Science finds that women’s tears can temporarily lower a man’s testosterone level. In other words, it’s a big turnoff.

Kevin Martin, 29, assistant bar manager at Eastern Standard, in Kenmore Square, has experienced the discomfort of being around crying men. On two recent occasions men cried at the bar — one who was going through a divorce, another who was suffering from depression.

“I feel like if I lost control, I would definitely excuse myself, but they definitely stayed where they were,’’ he said. “I said, ‘If you want to go into our coatroom, we have this hallway that leads to back of kitchen that’s quiet and dark,’ but they both said no. They mostly just sat there and continued to cry. They went through multiple piles of cocktail napkins. I think they were both lonely.’’

As with so many things, crying has gone in and out of fashion. Tom Lutz, the author of “Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears,’’ said many epic heroes cried, including Odysseus, Aeneas, and El Cid. In the 18th century, crying was considered a mark of a man’s refinement, and in novels of the time, he said, “You will find men weeping all over Europe.’’

“Lincoln and Douglas wept . . . during their debates,’’ Lutz said. “It was considered part of what a great orator would do.’’

William Frey II, author of “Crying: The Mystery of Tears,’’ sees a day when men might be able to cry again. “It’s a long process, but there is a gradual shift in the way people are looking at crying,’’ he said. “I think eventually it will result in men being able to cry without having negative consequences, and fewer people being told it’s unmanly to cry.’’

If there’s one category of men who may never cry, no matter how socially acceptable it becomes, it’s Mafiosi.

“The only time you see a wise guy cry,’’ said Boston defense attorney Anthony Cardinale, “is if his mother, his wife, or a son or a daughter pass away.’’

In prison, he added, “I’ve never seen one cry, and I’ve seen them get five life sentences or 100 years in jail.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at