The Power of Norms and Stigma

“Do not apologize for crying. Without this emotion, we are only robots.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Taken aback by the kind gesture of the employee, the manager had warm tears welling up in his otherwise icy eyes. Was it possible, she thought, that he was human? Zeus was written to have cried tears of blood, Phillip the Good burst into tears with relative frequency, Lancelot cried when he was separated from Guinevere, and Jesus wept. Why, then, is it such a remarkable thing to see a man weep today? Lest we find ourselves accused of being robots, perhaps it is time to explore the benefits of being human.

There are three questions a person must answer to join an online group I help admin, and the first question is Are you a robot? It’s a question that draws funny responses sometimes, and I really should have saved some of my favorites. If someone answers at all, I’m sure they are a real person. What makes someone truly human is their ability to express emotion. Our society has come to belittle and malign those who show emotion, especially men who shed tears. Digging in to learn when and why men lost the very right to grieve, I discovered a bigger issue. Margaret Mead’s words about never doubting that a small group of citizens could change the world are very true, indeed.

It’s about social norms, and men being allowed to cry is just one of the things someone decided wasn’t ok. There are some really helpful social norms, such as its being appropriate to say excuse me if you burp in front of someone, but what about social norms that actually stifle people: boys wear blue and girls wear pink (though in 1918, it was the exact opposite), men should work in the yard and women work in the house, men must be strong and women weak and nurturing.

Look at the fashion industry – they are regularly updating what we should wear. Bell bottoms or boot cut? High waist or hip huggers? And the one that has been my greatest joy to ignore — no wearing white after Labor Day or before Memorial Day. Do you know why that rule came into being? Snobbery, which is really one more form of fear.

The wealthiest ladies after the Civil War decided that establishing certain rules of fashion would point out quickly those who weren’t in the “in” crowd. And in a very similar way, it was decided that men should be strong and silent, instead of weeping as they were in the stories of Zeus, Phillip, Lancelot, and Jesus. Maybe a writer, long before Hemingway, wrote men as strong characters not showing emotion, and before you know it, men were no longer allowed to be human.

While Hemingway might not have been afraid for men to be sensitive, it surely became a power struggle to keep sensitive men on a lower rung of the ladder, and it has continued even today. What changes things? How do we break these ridiculous social norms that were decided by people who were AFRAID of others being equal to them? How do we rid ourselves of the social stigma attached?

All it takes is one person to spark change — in either direction. Mussolini and Hitler convinced the people of their countries that they had the best way to rule, and though they eventually were met with failure, they changed the norms of their time because people bought into the thinking. Names we will remember for their singular drive for change for the norms of society are Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Higgins Sanger, Mahatma Ghandi, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps YOU!

Men need to cry. Maybe we don’t need drama-filled, weepy workplaces, but we also don’t need to squelch the value that lies within us. There is usefulness (scientifically proven) in crying, and maybe we are coming to a time when it is celebrated the way equal rights, religious liberty, and wearing white whenever you darn well please (except maybe white shoes for this girl) are celebrated today.

Social norms regarding manners and kindness are important in every age. Social norms that seek to divide people into classes and create stigma develop around people of power who are afraid of losing their self-acclaimed superiority. When we discover a power within ourselves, it is quite possible that we will be brave enough to celebrate who we are, and we can all hope that society is evolving in a positive direction that honors the best in each of us, including the tears of men and women.

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