Swearing Up A Storm

Every morning, I carve out thirty to forty-five minutes to wake up. I used to do this by drinking coffee and watching the news. Lately, I’ve been using this time to finish up what I was unable to complete the day before. This morning, when I should have been finishing the podcast I was listening to at the gym last night or reading a few pages of one of the four books I’m currently reading, I found myself reading about author Emma Byrne.

As an aside, that’s a bad habit I have – starting things when I haven’t finished the previous thing. Books, TV shows, chores at home, tasks at work, all fall victim to my propensity to move on to the next thing before completing the last thing. I don’t know what that says about my ability to focus, and I’m not sure I want to…

I have a good friend who has decided she is going to stop swearing – it’s one of her New Year’s resolutions, and I wish her luck. Changing such an ingrained behavior is not an easy task – part of the reason quitting smoking is so difficult is because habits that are repeated over the course of years and years become second nature, and it’s so easy to lose focus and revert to comfortable behaviors, especially if boredom or stress are involved.

I remembered reading an article recently about how swearing was actually good for you – how swearing is not necessary lazy or a sign of a lack of education, but rather is a sign of advanced intellect.

And that’s when I found Emma Byrne.

Byrne is the author of Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. In her book she makes the case that swearing is a natural part of who we are as humans, and it serves a number of social and biological functions. The two that really stand out to me:

1. Swearing is an effective way to mitigate physical and emotional pain. In her book, Byrne references the study by behavioral psychologist Dr. Richard Stephens, who ran multiple iterations of a simple experiment where subjects were asked to submerse their hands into a container of ice water. With the appropriate controls in place, some were given profanity to utter aloud while others were given profanity substitutes (such as ‘darn’ or ‘fudge’), while other still were asked to not say anything.

The results of these experiments showed that those subjects that were allowed to swear with actual socially (un)acceptable curse words were able to keep there hands submerged up to one-and-a-half times longer than the other two control groups. This indicates that the swear words had the opposite effect from what was expected; experts usually recommend against “catastrophizing” a situation by using swear words to mitigate stress or pain, but this research clearly indicates the opposite may be true. Swearing provides a sort of release that allows one to withstand greater physical or emotional pain for a longer period of time.

2. Byrne also discusses Project Washoe in her book. Washoe was a female chimpanzee, and she was inadvertently taught to swear by her original handlers, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, in the 1960’s. During the process of potty training Washoe (mostly to avoid the throwing of feces, as chimps are wont to do), they taught her the sign for “dirty,” which consists of placing the knuckles of one hand under the chin. Washoe immediately adapted this sign for other uses, using it to sign phrases like “dirty monkey” when referring to another primate.

Washoe had three offspring, and by the time the third young chimp arrived, the Gardners had stopped teaching the chimps language. Washoe took it upon herself to teach this sign (and others) to her youngest child, passing on this pseudo-profanity to her offspring. 

The takeaway here is that the use of profanity as a way to express oneself more colorfully or forcefully seems to be biologically motivated.

There is a third example that Byrne discusses in her book and that is profanity in the workplace. There are, of course, situations were profanity is never acceptable. But there are just as many instances, if not more, where it is acceptable, and even desirable. It is an effective tool, for instance, for instilling esprit de corps within certain groups, and it’s also an efficient means to convey jocularity amongst co-workers. 

I’m by no means encouraging you to go out there and swear up a blue storm; however, I’m not encouraging you not to, either. It really is a matter of judgement and application of good taste. Trust your judgement – if it feels wrong or awkward, then it probably is. But if you have a certain level of confidence that it will be well-received, then go for it. Every situation is different, and you know best what is acceptable in your work and social situations.

What I’ve Learned

What the #@$*?!?! I was supposed to learn something from this?

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