The Economics of Male Grief

Men aren’t supposed to cry. Not regularly anyway. Many people think that mores like this are based on some biological difference between the sexes. However, I’d argue that a lot of our gender differences are produced and/or reinforced and heightened through socialization.

Consider this, from a Wall Street Journal article from a few years back:

The male reluctance to shed tears is relatively new”, says Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside professor. He traces this to the late 19th century, when factory workers—mostly men—were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.

Iconic historical and cultural depictions of men crying—in the Bible, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, for instance—have been overcome by more recent dictates discouraging men from crying. Biologically, and in the context of centuries and millennia, “male tears are the norm and males not crying is recent historical aberration,” he says.

Christ_aux_liens_-_Vesoul_-_musée_Garret_2As a man who has rediscovered crying in recent years after a hell of a lot of stuffing it, I found this article compelling. Although it’s probably the case that socialization at school and other places put it into my head that crying isn’t okay for men, the day that solidified it for me was my grandfather’s funeral.

I was 13 years old. As one of the pallbearers, I stood at the end of the line, watching the casket coming out of the hearse. Suddenly, I felt weak in my legs and turned away, just at the time when I should have been reaching up. My uncle screamed something nasty at me, jolting me back into place, to do my “job.” I think I didn’t forgive him for years for that.

Later that day, my grandmother came around and told all of us “Don’t cry. You’re grandfather wouldn’t want you to cry.” She was trying to support us, but this is often how grandma’s support has been – kind of off. Anyway, her words that day, as well as my uncle’s, stuck with me, leading the charge of all the other comments and views I’d heard saying that men don’t cry, that we best be “tough,” no matter what.

That’s my micro-level story. The quote above, though, points to the fairly recent cultural origins of the suppression of male tears and grief. That it’s directly tied to the rise of industrialized capitalism. Why might this be? Well, as I see it, the worst aspects of capitalism require humans to turn into machines. Cut off from our bodies. Cut off from our emotional worlds. Cut off, often, from the needs of the very Earth we live on, and are made of.

Sometimes it’s blunt, like forcing people to suppress emotional experiences around their work. Other times, it’s more subtle, like making people work a certain block of time every day, regardless of what their body rhythms are, how healthy they are, or what other needs they might have.

Given that the industrial workplace was designed by men for other men, it’s not a surprise that men tend to struggle with issues of workplace produced grief and loss. A guy gets fired, and he comes back with weapons to threaten or kill those who fired him. A co-worker is hurt or killed in a workplace accident that could have easily been prevented, and his male friends bond around alcohol or drug use. The over calculating, uber-rational boss doesn’t know when to quit in the quest for profits, so his heart quits for him before he’s even 60 years old. Even though the modern workplace has softened some in recent decades, all these examples or similar ones with less dramatic outcomes are still far too common.

Of course, things are usually more complex than a simple A produced B outcome. However, I know in my own case that I’m much less prone these days to the kind of anger that can spiral into out of control violence. And it seems directly related to handling grief better, including allowing myself to cry.

It seems promising that one of the beacons of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal, published an article like this. Not that I think it will suddenly help make a cultural shift around men and crying, but perhaps it will give some of those high powered business dudes who love to read the WSJ permission to let go. Every little bit helps.

Photo Credit:

Christ aux liens Vesoul by Remi Mathis via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. avatarNathan says

    “Society suppresses grief only to have it erupt in violence and crime. ” Yes, I totally agree. And really, it’s sad that enough of us can’t see this connection to change this.

    “Grief can be the same for women too.” I think we all are impacted, regardless of gender. It sometimes looks different on the surface, but in the end, the suffering that comes forth is the same.

    The “get over it” mentality seems to be a perfect fit for our hyper-speed, quick results oriented society. I agree that empathy is one remedy to this. Simply slowing down and giving space can be another.

  2. avatarW Hopkins says

    Society suppresses grief only to have it erupt in violence and crime.

    Grief can be the same for women too. Ever been told to “get on with it” when you lose a baby, or that others go through worse after you have suffered life-threatening complications from child birth? You have to be allowed to grieve safely and be sure of your support networks to do so. It takes time to mend.

    The key word is empathy; too easily forgotten.

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