Personal confession: I love to swear.
I developed my freaking excellent swearing habit when I worked as a radio newscaster. On the air, I and everyone at the station had to have perfect manners, perfect diction, and perfect timing while we ran our engineering boards, cued up tapes and CDs, and monitored the clocks.
We absolutely could not swear while we were on the air (the station could be fined by the FCC if we did), so we all had to be on our best behavior – until the On Air light went off and we stepped out of our booths.
Then, the swearing arose like a wave – like a slow-motion tsunami – and we all swore up one side and down the other. Repression will often lead you to do more of the very thing you repress, you know?
I’ve polished and perfected my swearing habit since then, though I’ve sometimes felt a bit ashamed of my salty ways. Until science saved me!
First, swearing is a completely normal part of speech development everywhere in the world. Psychological researcher Timothy Jay studies taboo words and swearing, and he found that:
Virtually all people swear, and people swear pretty consistently throughout their lifetime — from the moment they can speak to the day they die. Swearing is almost a universal constant in most people’s lives.
Research, according to Jay, has shown we swear on average from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time — a tiny but significant percentage of our overall speech (frequently used personal pronouns such as you and I occur at approximately 1.0% rate in speech).
Swearing is not just for the uneducated or people of a lower socioeconomic class — it knows no social boundaries in its expression. Swearing is a natural part of human speech development. (From Why do we swear? at PsychCentral)
So even though swearing is usually forbidden, pretty much everyone swears. Researchers have wanted to know what function swearing served that made it universal even though there are so many warnings against it.
The benefits of swearing
Surprisingly, swearing does a great deal for us.
Swearing reduces pain and helps people tolerate it. This finding was first found in research* that tested a group of college students who were given a choice when they plunged their hands into a bucket of icy water — they could say a neutral word, or repeat a swear word instead.
The students who chose swear words reported less pain than the students who said the neutral words, and they could keep their hands in the icy water for about 40 seconds longer on average.
Further research has found that swearing is more prevalent in intelligent people, that it can signal closeness and trust, and that it can make a speaker appear more honest.
When I swear a lot, or when I hear other people swearing a lot, I wonder: Are we managing our pain? Are we signalling closeness and trust? Do we want people to know we’re honest?
People try to sell us positive thinking, positive emotions, and positive affirmations, but honest expressions are more valuable and healing in the long run. Besides, there’s no such thing as a positive emotion.
The next time people try to shame you for your salty ways, or for your supposedly “negative” attitude, join me in telling them to frak off.
*Swearing as a response to pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. (2009) NeuroReport. 20(12):1056-1060
People Who Swear May Be Happier, Healthier and More Honest by Lindsay Holmes
The surprising benefits of swearing by Tiffanie Wen