Weeping can woo the world – if the tears are seen as genuine

By John Mangan
The Age
February 13, 2011
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AN ABIDING image of the recent Queensland floods: Premier Anna Bligh holding a press conference and choked with emotion, flanked by Julia Gillard stony-faced.

Derided, too, as ”wooden” the prime ministerial boughs finally broke when she shed a tear in Parliament last week. To cry or not to cry – it’s just one of the questions public figures face these days.

Once, you didn’t see Bob Menzies blubbing as he battled the spectre of communism or the Don bawling when bowled out for a duck in his last innings. Speculation that tears in Bradman’s eyes led to his final duck always remained just that, speculation.

The mood started to change in the 1980s, when Malcolm Fraser’s bottom lip quivered after defeat in the 1983 election. His conqueror, Bob Hawke, opened the floodgates, tearing up at a press conference in 1984 when his daughter was battling heroin addiction.

Australian cricket captain Kim Hughes wept that year as he tendered his resignation.

Nowadays many things end in tears. No episode of MasterChef, Australian Idol or The Biggest Loser is complete without violent sobbing. Roger Federer broke down after losing the Australian Open final in 2009. Kevin Rudd cracked at his last media conference as prime minister. The US House of Representatives recently elected a Speaker, John Boehner, who frequently bursts into tears.

So where crying may once have been seen as a betrayal of weakness, is it now considered a necessary display of humanity?

Monash University political scientist Paul Strangio says the Prime Minister’s tears last week as she described losses in the Queensland floods are unlikely to sway public image one way or the other.

”The public doesn’t judge politicians harshly if in trying circumstances they shed some tears. The cliche is that politicians are too controlled, their true feelings masked by political professionalism,” he says. ”So if people think the emotion is genuine they’ll relate to it.”

A steady diet of film and TV drama has created expectations that our public figures display their emotions, says University of Melbourne social researcher Lauren Rosewarne. ”I think the Prime Minister realised it wasn’t enough that she was feeling grief and sadness, she had to show it. Anna Bligh has been amazing, she’s got it just right.”