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Tears, Boys and Communication

On Tears I

Boys don’t cry.

It’s not true, of course. Boys cry just as girls do. The problem is that crying is not merely an expression or outlet of emotion, but it’s a culturally shaped form of communication. We don’t just cry, we cry – or stop ourselves from crying – to say something, to position ourselves, to (dis)connect.

The truly complicated thing with tears and boys is probably this:

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then. (Dickens, Great Expectations 160)

Shame. Tears are connected to shame. As are other forms of (unfiltered) emotional expression: don’t laugh too loud, don’t sing in public, don’t hang your head. Keep yourself together, be reasonable.

At least if you're a boy.

Especially if you’re a boy.

There are probably good reasons for this: if we all wore our hearts on our sleeves, social life would be a nightmare: the waiter sharing his latest heartbreak as he serves a birthday cake, the train operator humming merrily as she lets us know that we just missed the last connection home. (I’m sure there are female train operators – there must be! Though, I don’t think I’ve ever met one… can we change that?) In restricting our own emotions, we make room for others. Maybe that’s why men are often expected to be more emotionally restricted, because their lives have been more public for a longer time.

Just a thought this, not based on any serious research. (This is a blog, so I can do that!)

Back to the Dickens quotation (I haven’t forgotten about it!) which supports this idea in a paradox way: David, the main character of Great Expectations (1860-61), stating that “we” (who is included here?) “need never be ashamed of our tears” suggests that “tears” are perceived as something to be “ashamed of.” Potentially. Maybe this is simply the older version of David – who is narrating the story – giving some unheard advice to his younger self. Maybe it’s a comment addressed to the reader: it’s okay to cry, crying is a good thing, it’ll make you feel “better.”

Even if you’re a boy.

Especially if you’re a boy.

And: it might (re)connect you to other people, too: “If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.” Have a cry, keep a friend.

The paradox in Dickens’s text makes us aware of this very curious and complicated problem I opened with: there seems to be a mix-up between “cultural tears” and the way we – and apparently especially boys and men – can(’t) communicate with them and tears as an emotional outlet potentially making all of us – whether male or female or divers – “better.”

Why are humans so complicated? Why?!?


I can make an attempt at an explanation, though: Dickens, for example, wrote in the 19th century and if we understand tears to be a communicative device that works within specific communicative cultural contexts, we must consider this very context and its influences. In other novels by Dickens, for example in Oliver Twist (1837-39), there is a lot of crying going on – and different kinds of it, too. Crying due to exhaustion (e.g. 60), crying because of despair (e.g. 25, 55, 449), but also fake crying (e.g. 54 – apparently only by the women, though…) as well as tears of laughter (e.g. 71), sympathy (e.g. 453) and “happy expectation” (260). It’s complex, but it’s definitely a thing, something many women and (some) boys do. At least in (sentimental) literature. Tears have a cleansing effect, they offer a kind of salvation:

Oliver looked up at the windows with tears of happy expectation coursing down his face. (260)

Homecoming, hope, relief. (That’s of course not what happens – we’re only halfway through the novel!)

The tears tell us who the good guys are (except for the fake criers), the kind-hearted, the innocent, the vulnerable. Boy or not. But tears are not only great at making a character approachable, they also externalise emotion. And thus communicate with us, the readers, in an immediate and often quite intimate way: we (alone) "see" what the characters feel. We may even be moved by their emotion. Boy (I guess) or not.

But the shame is definitely there. Especially in the later novel: though David finds relief in private crying, he is unable to reconnect with Joe by showing his emotions openly.

A chance lost to shame.

Does it stay that way, though? What happens to tears, boys and shame in (children's) literature? Are boy characters (and readers) more or less restricted in their crying down the centuries? Do they develop their own language of (uncried) tears?

To be continued…

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Penguin, 1996.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. 1837-39. Penguin, 2003.

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