Swearing: Is It Actually A Good Thing?

We’ve been dropping F-bombs for more than half a millennium, yet they’re still as explosive an issue as ever. Whilst analysts claim that, with profanities making up 0.5% of our daily linguistic output, we’re swearing no more than our ancestors, many claim we’re hearing more swear words in the boardroom and on our screens than ever before. And as middle-class mums take to social media to lay claim to their right to swear in front of their toddlers, it’s an issue that looks set to become increasingly divisive. But could cursing come with benefits? There seems to be something special about swearing – those who lose the ability to form words following brain damage often retain the ability to swear, and swearing doesn’t simply activate the areas of the brain associated with linguistic processing, but emotional processing, too. We investigate whether we should worry about – or welcome – the social acceptance of swear words…

Swearing at work

Apparently, most of us now swear at work. However, a generational divide appears to be emerging, and, with it, a widening of gender and status gaps – but you might be surprised by who’s in each camp…

According to a survey of 1,500 American workers, 58% of over-40s swear at work. For millennials, the figure rises to 66%. The numbers might be higher than expected, but the age trend runs in a fairly predictable direction, with 45% of over-50s arguing that swearing in the workplace is “too casual and feels unprofessional”. Interestingly, though, it’s millennial women in executive and management positions who appear to be the most prolific utterers of profanities, with three-quarters claiming to swear at work on a habitual basis.

40% of those surveyed said they would prefer to work in a workplace in which the air turns blue on a regular basis, with psychologists claiming that swearing can promote morale and bonding amongst colleagues. 

Swearing in front of the children?

New Zealander Maria Foy precipitated a media storm when she published a blog post defending her right to swear in front of her two and four-year-old children. “When I became a parent, I worked really hard to try and stop swearing,” she says, explaining that she subsequently discovered “a need to express myself more than usual” and “couldn’t contain the swear words”. She says that she now teaches her children that “the words I say are ‘adult words’, and that when they become an adult they can choose to use them or not,” claiming that, “since I adopted this philosophy, my children haven’t sworn once around me.”

However, psychologists warn that young children learn primarily through modelling and imitation. “If parents don’t want children who swear then they’re best advised to avoid swearing themselves,” Professor Eva Kimonis advises. Children begin to swear by the age of two, and, by the time they start school, the average child has a vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words (whether or not they understand their meaning). So at this point, should we be hanging our heads in despair? Not according to Professor Benjamin Bergen, who declares that there is no evidence that the use of profane language causes direct harm to children. In fact, observational research suggests that “children, like adults” tend to use profanity in “pro-social ways… to make friends, to influence people, to smooth social reactions.”

Is swearing good for you?

But could swearing do more than simply oil the wheels of social cohesion?

According to science, swearing can have hypoalgesic (pain-relieving) effects. Research participants were able to keep their hands submerged in icy water 40 seconds longer when asked to repeat a swear word rather than a neutral word. They also reported feeling less pain. Keele University’s Richard Stephens, who led the research, says that he “would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.” But beware – the more frequently we swear, the lower the impact.

What does Swearing say about you?

Enjoy the odd cuss and fancy a reason or three to feel morally superior about it? According to Cambridge University researchers, people who swear are more honest and less likely to manipulate their online presence to impress outsiders. And, whilst swearing is often viewed as the last resort of someone struggling to express themselves in a more articulate form, according to research data, people who swear more actually have larger vocabularies and are even seen as more credible witnesses. #@%£ing brilliant news!

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