Trigger warning: This post contains some highly profane expletives that readers may find offensive.
When I was in high school, I recall an English teacher saying cuss words were a sign of poor vocabulary and low intelligence. He also claimed it displayed poor control of emotions and major anger management issues.
People who swear are ill-bred, rude, slovenly, bad people.
The proof? Federal and state prisons full of unabashed, unapologetic cussers.
I called bullshit then. But without any research to back me up.
Flash forward a couple decades later: I’m a married mom of two little ones and I cuss. I’m not proud of the fact, just honest. Sometimes I just need to let out a “F-ck!” to let you know how much I don’t give one.
(I don’t swear at my kids, in front of other people’s children, or in public. Just my car and my house.)
Wondering why I enjoy this crass indulgence so much, I decided to do some digging.
Why We Swear: 10 Benefits of Swearing
Forget eating your veggies. There’s loads of amazing evidence that using swear words is good for you.
Swearing helps reduce pain, build camaraderie, ward off violence, show off intelligence and creativity, and cope in difficult circumstances. Let’s dive in.
#1 It Displays Intelligence
My English teacher was wrong. A 2015 study, found that well-educated, articulate people cursed more and were better at cursing than people with more limited vocabularies.
Swearing is an outward sign of intelligence. We swear because we’re smart.
The study author said, “Language is correlated with intelligence” and “People that are good at language are good at generating a swearing vocabulary.”
Among study highlights: taboo word fluency was correlated with higher overall language fluency. Taboo words for the study purpose were defined as words like f-ck, sh-t, bitch, and other pejorative words and slurs – all the classics.
Not only were those with higher taboo fluency more articulate and word fluent overall, they were more apt to swear intelligently.
While Emily Post etiquette would suggest that people use bad language because the speakers cannot find better (damn) words to express themselves, this is not the case. Fluency is fluency, regardless of subject matter. You can be F word fluent.
Those who use more swear words have more non-swear words at their disposal too, including emotionally neutral words. A swear word is used to express strong emotion and deploy the mot juste.
#2 Swearing Makes You More Persuasive
In 2014, researchers did a study on political messaging. Politicians who used swear words, including the penultimate F word, were perceived as more informal, more likable, and more trustworthy. This study looked at online speech on platforms like Twitter and blog posts.
In general, people swear more when they’re online. A Twitter study found that users would swear 1.15% of the time in their tweets. That’s a bleeping curse rate of 64% higher than regular spoken language.
#3 Swearing Builds Better Teams
There’s solidarity from swearing. Look at soldiers, sports teams, and coworkers. It’s a form of in-grouping and dropping formality. Swearing builds more collaborative, cohesive teams.
Swearing also makes you more polite. In a New Zealand study of coworker groups at a factory, groups who cursed among themselves were less likely to swear in other outside settings. Having a swear cohort gives you an outlet to curse openly, relieving you of the need or desire to do so in other contexts.
You don’t need buddies to drink with; you need buddies to swear with.
#4 Swearing is Classy
A UK study from 2004 debunked the notion that swearing is not classy. The University of Lancaster published a study showing that upper middle classes swear significantly more than lower middle classes.
I personally think that could be tied to privilege. At some point, swearing doesn’t matter anymore. You just want to get your point out.
Not to mention the fact that there’s going to be more repercussions for cussing for an hourly wage worker than an accountant pushing $100K a year. While a “f-ck” can get you fired if you’re an $12 an hour cashier, the same can’t really be said of a CPA.
#5 Swearing is Honest
You’re not holding back. There’s a correlation between profanity and honesty.
A series of 2017 studies published showed that people who curse lied less and had higher levels of integrity overall.
And when you express your emotions, unfiltered and uncensored, you come across as more transparent.
The study does note that their findings don’t mean that the more you swear, the less likely you are to behave dishonestly (engaging in more serious unethical behaviors).
This one sort of makes sense. “This tastes like shit” is a lot more honest than a milquetoast “Ooh, how interesting. It’s, uh, I like it.”
#6 Swearing Builds Emotional Resilience
A 2011 study finds that swearing is an outlet that helps us cope with adverse circumstances. Swearing can release difficult, pent up, negative emotions. This relief can help a person change their mood, mindset, and redirect their energy. Swearing can’t solve your problems, but it can offer you a spot of respite.
It explains how swearing can also help you build emotional resilience.
By letting yourself swear, you strengthen your congruence of identity. You can bring your whole self, consistently, to conversations and interactions with others. This also helps you develop healthier relationships.
#7 Swearing is High Evolved
Turns out we swear because we’re highly evolved.
As we’ve developed and evolved over the past several million years, we’ve learned how to hunt, build fires, develop written language, and curse. Swearing is a major evolutionary advantage.
At some point, we began to hurl expletives instead of punches. Not hard to see how this could give you an edge in survival.
While other animals will claw at each other when they’re angry or frightened, humans and primates can cuss. Chimpanzees and other apes swear too. Swearing allows us express and neutralize powerful emotions without having to enter into physical conflict and suffering the repercussions.
As primate, we have discovered it’s better to scream “F-ck you!” then to go f-ck someone up.
#8 Swearing Improves Athletic Performance and Pain Tolerance
A 2009 study found that using profanity had physiological benefits.
Shouting out an obscenity can help you tolerate pain. When you slam your finger in the drawer, you may feel less pain shouting 4-letter obscenities instead of a neutral word or tepid ‘Gosh darn it’.
Research in that 2009 study uncovered a couple of interesting case in points:
- Study participants exposed to pain were able to bear it for longer periods of time when they used curse words instead of saying more societally polite substitutes. Participants were literally put through the wringer: hands squeezed in a vice or plunged into icy cold water.
- Cyclists who curse have better performance. When pedaling against resistance, athletes who used profanity had more power, strength, and resistance than other athletes who used non-swear words.
When we drop F-bombs and curse words, our body produces a physiological stress response and goes into defense mode. There’s a rise of adrenaline and your body has an analgesic response which helps you tolerate physical and emotional pain.
“By swearing, you’re triggering an emotional response in yourself, which triggers a mild stress response, which carries with it a stress-induced reduction in pain,” says the study author.
Damn. They should have taught a chapter on foul language in my childbirth class.
#9 People Who Swear Are More Extroverted
In a study featured in the Association for Psychological Science, swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a “defining feature of a Type A personality”.
And in a personality types study, socially engaged personalities were the most likely to agree that they often used “swear words in casual conversations”.
There aren’t conclusions drawn about why social engagers are most likely to curse. The study hypothesizes that the stress of always having to prove themselves, and woo, in continually new situations, renders them more prone to an occasional slip-up.
Or maybe it’s because they’re trying to be more persuasive and informal.
#10 Swearing is Liberating
Sporadic outbursts of negative emotion are part of the human experience. Polite society would dictate you bottle up the cursing and chaos.
But Dr. Antonio, a counseling psychologist and founder of Therapy Central, says that “Swearing can have a truly liberating effect when we’re feeling bottled up frustration.”
In a Healthline interview, he adds that saying f-ck “can have an immediate calming impact on the difficult emotions we might be experiencing.”
Why is Swearing So Controversial?
I haven’t found a wholly satisfactory answer to this. It just is. Language and social norms are a delicate balancing act. People have different boundaries. Swearing is a taboo topic itself, even when talking about it in a more meta way.
Many research articles suggest swearing’s controversy is rooted in religion. Religiosity has played a major role in suppressing swear words – specifically Judeo-Christianity. And America is nothing if not religious – even if less religious than many would like in these past decades compared to years of yore.
While the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit a long list of explicit words (that’s why God gave us George Carlin), some believe that certain passages tell us not to cuss. Specifically, passages about having good flow from your heart and mouth instead of evil.
Swear words, says Colossians 3:8, are often linked to “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk”. They’re also related to crude and unwholesome behavior.
Virtually all churches today are anti-swearing. Either through openly condemning or warning against it, or by keeping all language pure and lily white in church and church events.
Some even believe curse words are the work of the Devil. People used to curse aloud during church because the Devil “made them do it”. You can’t really fault the Devil for wanting to liven up a 3-hour-long Puritan worship service, sitting on stiff hard benches.
People were incredibly susceptible to dozing off. Those caught sleeping in church were subject to being abruptly awoken with a hard, wrap on the head or a pointer. Blaming the Devil, over boredom, was the safer and healthier bet.
And not everyone is up on the amazing science of the health and wellness benefits of swearing.
Health Benefits Be Damned: Settings Where I Would Definitely Not Swear
I love a good swear at home. I don’t work in curse words for the sake of swearing – only when and if the need arises. (And it does. A lot.) Still, there are many contexts where I would definitely not swear.
- In a place of worship
- At my child’s daycare
- In front of other children anywhere
- In front of other non-swearing people (or people who are not explicitly known to be openly cuss)
- At a playground or children’s “space” (even if it’s empty)
- At work (in a team meeting, interview, when presenting, or in smaller group conversations with non-swearing coworkers or non-swearing conversations)
- Public places – any place outside of my home or other living spaces (like my hotel, hospital room, or car)
- Leaving a review (those reviews get taken less seriously and I find them vulgar)
- Passwords – it can lead to a lot of embarrassment; I learned my lesson)
- Email addresses – yah. That was another lesson learned.
- In a “strongly worded letter” – to a manager, editor, customer support, etc. (Although in limited circumstances, I may work in one or two carefully chosen curse words and make sure to swear tastefully.)
Everyone has off-limit arenas for cursing; these are mine. You’ll only hear me cuss if you’ve just broken my bones, or you are a known, pervasive, and repeat swearer.
Is it Bad to Swear in Front of Your Kids?
Most parents would say yes. You shouldn’t do it ever – or at least try not to.
That was my original goal, too. Until one day I found myself unleashing a skincurling “Gosh darn it!” after slamming my finger in the bathroom door. My 3-year-old daughter was petrified by the display of emotion. A day later when I stubbed my toe, I used an expletive in a normal speaking voice and she didn’t bat an eye.
I realized it wasn’t about the vocabulary I was spewing; it was about the emotion and animation.
Musing further, I realized I regularly used other words in front of my preschooler that also wash over her, like abode, heist, dude, bro, salty, ugh, and mansplain.
So now, I don’t censor myself at home.
It’s also about privilege.
As an adult, I have rights and privileges that my kids don’t have. They can’t stay up late, watch violent movies, drink soda, smoke, drive, vote, and the list of prohibitions goes on. Swearing is another adult-only privilege.
And it turns out that swearing in children emerges by age 2. By the time the average child enters school, they already know 30 to 40 offensive words. And children achieve adult-like fluency in cursing by age 11 or 12.
The study noted that we don’t quite know how children achieve cursing proficiency. Older children are better at it, because younger children. Younger ones are parroting back words they have heard, and have yet to learn about nuance, settings, and swearing etiquette.
Raising Potty Mouths
It’s going to happen, no matter what.
All kids will hear, learn, and repeat swear words. Some psychologists believe that the swearing lexicon should be a normal part of a child’s development. Instead of censoring swearing, we should attempt to establish a normalized lexicon and etiquette rules for swearing.
It’s all about context – something my preschool and toddler can’t grasp. They don’t understand nuance or audience. They can only use swear words in ways that are going to embarrass themselves and their entourage. And it could stunt (limit) their opportunity for social growth and interaction with peers.
If I do hear a curse word, I’ll ignore it or say in a neutral voice why that wasn’t the right word. Yelling or laughing is only going to exacerbate the problem. (I’ve not yet had to do this.)
Once they get school-aged, I won’t forbid swearing. They can use a curse word if they use it at home, if no one else but family is there, if it fits the context, and if it truly is the most apt word and no other substitute could possibly do.
I want my kids to not offend others with their profanity. And to master context and language. And be eloquent. AF.