This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands in 2019.
By now, it’s fairly well established that men don’t love talking about their feelings – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Think of the time your dad screamed at an omelette he’d burned: that was a feeling. Or when your colleague who owns far too many deadstock football shirts cried after Arsenal lost for the eighth time in a row: that, too, was a feeling.
The problem is: men not properly expressing these feelings can result in feelings of isolation and worsening mental health. At the most extreme end of the scale, studies have shown that increased emotional support from friends and family is one of the top ways to prevent suicide among men.
To get a better sense of how young men handle their feelings, I decided to gather some empirical evidence, by asking men I encountered in the street: when did you last give in to your emotions and cry?
Ash (28), Ben (28), Abdullah (28), Daniel (28)
VICE: When was the last time you cried?
Ash: Probably when my grandfather passed away, about a year-and-a-half ago. He was 75 years old and lived pretty far away, but we got along very well. He suffered from an untreatable malignant tumour. It was very difficult to see him suffer like that.
Daniel: I cried when my dog died. I didn’t cry right away, but it all poured out of me the next day.
Ben: Most recently, when my daughter was born – but those were happy tears.
When you cry, do you consciously give yourself permission to do so?
Ash: No, I don’t think about it. I don’t stop myself, but I’m hardly ever in a situation where I need to do that. Women cry for a variety of reasons, but men cry when big things happen.
You don’t cry when you feel depressed?
Ash: I don’t feel that way very often, but when I don’t feel good, I don’t cry about it. I go eat, get junk food or play on my Xbox. Generally speaking, I try to stay positive. But when I’m struggling with something, I would sooner talk to my friends about it than my family.
Do you feel like there are attitudes within society that discourage men from showing their emotions?
Abdullah: Men are too proud to show their emotions, that’s just the way it is. This is definitely something that should change.
What has to happen?
Abdullah: I think it will change over time. You can already see it now, when you look at the LGBTQ community. Things are so different compared to when we were born. So, by the time the next generation is our age, men will cry buckets, communicate properly and hold hands.
Tijmen (18), Daan (18)
When was the last time you cried?
Tijmen: About two weeks ago. My dad and I got a phone call from my school; I won’t be allowed to finish my degree. We had an idea it was coming. The course load was super heavy and didn’t align well with my abilities. But in that moment, when we knew definitively that it was over, the tears started flowing. All my hard work and my dad’s hard-earned money went down the drain, just like that.
Daan: I was talking to my mum a few weeks ago. It was just a regular conversation, in which I told her I felt like she treated me differently from my brother and sister. Ultimately, we were able to talk it through, but the deeper the conversation went, the more emotional things got, and eventually a tear escaped. It ended as quickly as it started. At that moment, my mum really appreciated that I showed my emotions for once.
Do you feel safe enough around your friends to tell them how you feel?
Tijmen: I could, but it rarely happens. When you’re with friends, you want to have a fun time, instead of thinking about bad stuff. You can talk about your issues, but after that it’s like: “Okay, let’s drown it out with a drink.”
Then who do you cry to?
Daan: To myself. Or to my girlfriend – but that doesn’t happen very often. I’d just rather hide my emotions.
Do you have a safe space to talk about depressive thoughts or feelings?
Daan: No. Maybe after I’m already over it, but not in that specific moment. I don’t want to bother other people with my problems. I want to solve issues on my own and not put myself in a vulnerable position where I need others.
When did you last cry?
Two years ago, I left Singapore to go to college in Melbourne, Australia. It meant I had to leave my family behind. They took me to the airport, and while we were saying goodbye I felt the tears starting to push their way to the surface, but I waited until I was alone. Once I got through customs, I allowed myself to cry.
Do you feel like that’s what was expected of you?
Maybe it’s a part of Asian culture, but showing emotions in front of our parents is not really considered normal in my family. I know that many of my friends retreat when they want to cry. That’s also the first thing I do when I’m sad, just so I can get my emotions under control. Or I talk to someone I trust, someone who I know won’t betray me.
Why do you think you do that?
I’ve never seen my dad cry, not even at funerals, so that might be where it comes from.
What do you expect of the next generation?
I think people accept vulnerability more and more, and the next generation might be more open to men crying more often, but we’re not there yet. Some of my friends would share more openly with a stranger they meet at a cafe, or would rather look for help online than talk to someone they know. They long for a safe space, someone who won’t judge them.
When’s the last time you cried?
About six months ago. I was visiting my dad in New York. He lives there with my 18-year-old sister. There were some complicated family issues going on at the time, but eventually I had to return home. It was very hard for me to leave my sister behind. I felt guilty, because I’m her older brother and I can’t take care of her when she’s this far away.
Do you always feel like you can cry if you want to?
Yes, but I hold it inside when I’m with my family. When I visit them in New York, for instance, and I’m about to leave, and we’re all standing by the gate, it’s just a matter of time before someone starts to cry. Being the older brother, I don’t want to be the one to start, because then the rest will follow suit.
That’s a big responsibility…
Yes, but that’s what it means to be an older brother. You don’t want to be the person standing there, crying their eyes out. It’s a role I’ve decided to take on because I want to protect my sister.
Do you feel like there’s a stigma surrounding men who cry?
Yes, of course, but I do believe this is changing. The high male suicide rate [worldwide, the rate is several times higher for men than women] is a problem, so if men are more open about their emotions, that might help to combat the issue.
Do you think there should be more spaces where you can safely show your emotions?
Definitely, but I think that everyone has their own particular safe spaces. When I’m hanging out in the car with my friends, I can get more personal about something that’s bothering me. Men don’t mind getting emotional around a few people they trust, but you don’t want to be the person who’s always crying. If we as a society want to remove the stigma around men crying, then we need to show people why that’s important. And we need to help boys of a young age to understand their own emotions.