Helen Fisher, PhD


Big boys don’t cry.  It’s true.  Men are far less likely to shed tears than women in all countries where this has been surveyed, including the vastly different cultures of the United States, India, China and Japan.  And although men are often characterized as stunted, shallow, aloof, emotionally stingy or lacking compassion, men’s “emotional containment,” as scientist’s call men’s lack of emotional expressiveness, evolved for important reasons.  For millions of years, men’s jobs were primarily to protect the little hunting/gathering band and kill large animals for dinner. 

Sobbing could not have helped an ancestral man as he stared into the yellow eyes of a charging lion, slit the throat of a baby gazelle for supper, raided an enemy camp or stabbed an intruder in the heart.    Men needed exceptional vision, strength, endurance, special skills and cunning to do their daily jobs.  To their daily work, they were obliged to hide their feelings of weakness, fear, sadness and vulnerability. As a result ancestral men evolved the capacity to internalize their feelings, keeping them to themselves.  Little boys cry just as often as little girls.   But as testosterone begins to flood the brain in teenage, young men  begin to camouflage their feelings of anxiety, grief, guilt and hurt with silence.  Instead, they become fluent in “joke speak,” all the quips, gags and seemingly nonchalant remarks that boys and men employ to mask their feelings of despair and apprehension.   Testosterone puts on the breaks.   Today many even drive their emotions into their unconscious; they don’t even know how they feel.  

Men try to avoid emotional conversations too.  During an argument with a wife or lover, for example, they often flee from verbal confrontation, retreating into stormy silence.   Faced with a partner’s negative feelings, men can become mute.   Known as “stone walling,” even this is adaptive.  Men are more physically sensitive to discord than women are.  Their autonomic nervous system flies into action quicker: adrenaline and stress hormones begin to course through their mind and body–revving them up for “fight” or “flight.”  Even worse, more men experience “emotional flooding.”  Their heart pounds; their blood pressure rises; they begin to sweat; their breathing quickens; their muscles tense and burst into spontaneous, irrational fury or debilitating sorrow.  Moreover, once aroused, men recover from these bodily symptoms more slowly than women do.  So scientists now think that men shut avoid emotional conversations, and try to shut off their feelings during a marital argument to preserve their health.  Men are well built for shutting down their emotions too, because the male brain tends to be more compartmentalized.  Men have fewer neural connections between distant brain regions, a compartmentalization that can breed geniuses, but may also help men avoid their feelings.

If men are naturally emotionally contained, women are built to express their emotions. Ancestral females needed to care for tiny helpless babies, and for this they needed a different skill: “Emotional attunement,” the ability to feel what the baby feels.  This largely feminine ability to get into emotional synchrony with another is an evolutionary mechanism that most likely evolved to motivate new mothers to arise from cozy sleep to comfort a lonely, wet or frightened infant in the black of night.  Women achieve this, at least partially, with their more expressive faces.  As a woman (or man) moves their facial muscles, they trigger nerves which trigger brain activities that make them feel in specific ways.  This is why we feel happier when we smile.  (And why men and women who use botox to paralyze facial muscles feel less depressed.) But women respond more than once a minute to their infant’s squeals and gurgles, yawns and cries—and as they mimic their infant’s facial poses, they coordinating their mood with that of their little one.   Around the world, most women are more emotionally expressive than most men–it’s their inheritance.   Moreover, women are well built to cry tears. Women’s tear ducts are smaller than those of men.  So their tears spill onto their cheeks sooner. Moreover, Women had some 50% more circulating prolactin, a primary component of tears.

All animals cry; but none except people cry tears.   No one knows why.  But surely social signaling is among them.  Tears are an honest and powerful social signal.  When someone cries, we instantly listen, comfort and try to help.  With tears, people inform, demand, plead–and often get what they seek.   And a woman’s tears have a powerful physiological effect on men.   As part of a recent experiment, 24 men sniffed three women’s emotional tears and then rated photos of 18 women.  Results?  Sniffing tears reduced their sexual interest in these women, as well as decreasing feelings of sexual arousal and levels of testosterone.   Once again, this appears adaptive.  With less testosterone, men feel more empathy.  This is why aging men, with reduced levels of testosterone, cry more easily, as well as express more compassion.

We are entering the age of women.   Social standards are beginning to reflect the aptitudes and needs of women.  IN short, we are now living in a society where intimacy is  defined by emotional expression rather than doing things together.  As a result, men are becoming required to respond to stress as women do: with words and tears. Emotional containment is not longer fashionable.  Can men express themselves as women do?  Sure, we can flexible creatures with a tremendous desire to please the ones we love.  But next time the man of the house ducks a vicious verbal missile or walks out in the middle of a heated argument, you might try to remember:  he’s a man.  He was built for important life-saving jobs, jobs in which it was dangerous to weep.