US & Canada

Can you trust a leader who cries?

House Minority Leader John Boehner who broke down in tears during his speech, gives a thumbs-up at the end of his address to a Republican election night results watch rally in Washington,
Image caption Mr Boehner cried during his acceptance speech

Celebrating the Republican - and his own - victory, the incoming speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner's voice choked with emotion.

"I spent my whole life chasing the American dream. I put myself through school… working every rotten job there was and every night shift I could find," he sobbed.

"I poured my heart and soul into running a small business - and when I saw how out of touch Washington had become with the core values of this great nation, I put my name forward and ran for office."

A loyal crowd cheered and chanted as Mr Boehner, chin wobbling and welling up again, finished his speech.

For the audience, it was probably not the first time they have seen a few tears threaten to escape down the face of a political figure.

'Hard-wired response'

Most modern-day US presidents or candidates have succumbed to their emotions on occasion. Former presidents George Bush - both junior and senior, Bill and Hillary Clinton, even Barack Obama, have all been caught weeping at some point.

The outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is known for his emotional outbursts, memorably shedding tears in 2009 after the announcement that Rio de Janeiro would be the host for the 2016 Olympics.

And, in September, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made headlines across the world when he wept while lamenting the state of Afghanistan.

The list goes on. Bob Hawke, former Australian prime minister and one of the country's most popular leaders, became famous for crying during his time in office.

Despite his tough-guy image, he cried while talking about his daughter's drug addiction, his infidelity and - perhaps rather more surprisingly - the 1989 killing of Chinese students at Tiananmen Square.

Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - known as the Iron Lady - welled up when she left Downing Street in 1990.

But why do they do it?

Most psychologists agree that it is seen as far more acceptable to cry in public than it was several decades ago.

Moreover, says Judi James, a behavioural expert, many politicians believe it will increase their support by making people warm to them, which - at a basic level - it does.

"Crying has a profound effect on someone," she says.

"It's something that babies do to get nurture and attention and love, and we are almost hard-wired to have an empathetic response and a sympathetic response and that will still occur," she says.

Image caption Mr Blair's "Diana moment" was said to have captured the mood of the nation

But, she says, then the intellectual part of your brain kicks in and, for many of us, that includes cynicism - especially if the person is perceived to want something.

For the British, she believes former Prime Minister Tony Blair began a new trend in politics, when he blinked back tears after the death of Princess Diana.

"Because we were all tearful over Diana's death, it was seen as a shared emotion," she said.

'Faking it'

But the act soon lost its effect, she said, as the British began to get more wary of Mr Blair's emotional displays.

"He would begin to do the 'blinking back the tears' as a political gesture, and that was when people began to doubt it. It began to look rather contrived," she said.

"In the past, countries have been mesmerised by charismatic leaders," she says.

But, at least in Britain's case, things have changed, as we are used to "programmes like the X-factor where everyone cries to get our votes".

"As a nation we have become deeply cynical," she says.

Lucy Beresford, a psychotherapist, says the problem is that while what we are looking for in a politician has evolved over time, there is still an inherent contradiction in our requirements.

"The thing is we want our [male] politicians to be very strong and almost like father figures and therefore we don't like the sense that they will fall apart," she says.

Image caption Brazil's outgoing President Lula is known for his emotional displays

"But at the same time we want our politicians to be human."

In Mr Boehner's case, she believes it was genuine because it was congruent with what he was saying - he was revisiting emotional parts of his life.

And when it appears less real, that is probably because it is, she says, because as humans we tend to pick up intuitively whether it "rings true" or not.

"We can tell when politicians are faking it. We don't necessarily know how we tell but we pick up signals," such as facial twitches or hand gestures to the face, she says.

Ms James says that the most obvious difference is that politicians may shed a tear, but the rest of their body language fails to match up.

"Genuine tears make us desperate to hide our faces. This is where people go wrong," she says.

"The whole of the lower face crumples," she says.

No politician wants to be caught out pretending, but shedding real tears can also have its drawbacks.

When Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, cried after losing his post in a re-shuffle, it prompted novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte to comment that he "he had no balls even when leaving".

And when Hillary Clinton cried during her presidential campaign, the event was seized on by critics as "proof" that she was "not tough enough" to take it in the top job.

But, undoubtedly, at the right time and in the right place, tears can soften our hearts and make often distant-looking politicians appear human.

As French novelist Jean Giradoux once said: "The secret of success is sincerity".

"Once you can fake that, you've got it made."