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Why swearing is f****** good for you

Profanity can be annoying, but it has its benefits

Marvel’s Deadpool is a ‘superhero’ who loves his profanities.
Marvel’s Deadpool is a ‘superhero’ who loves his profanities.

Many sticklers have strict no-swearing rules for friends, families and significant others. If there’s one thing that puts them off, it’s bad language. But it might be time to relax those restrictions, for it turns out cursing does humanity a lot of good.

It’s time for us, then, to understand its nuances and celebrate its usefulness.

Swearing has been important historically, says Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good For You, which was published last year. “It’s one of the reasons why we’ve managed to be so successful as a society," she says on the phone. “If you think about it, swearing is often used as a way of not physically hurting someone. Those tribes that learnt to swear at each other, rather than physically hit each other, were much more likely to survive," adds Byrne.

Last year, a study by Richard Stephens, an academic at Keele University in the UK, found that people who cursed performed better during workouts than those who didn’t. The same team had found in 2009 that swearing improves the body’s ability to withstand pain.

For the 2009 study, they took 64 undergraduate students and asked them to stick a finger into icy-cold water. They were allowed to utter a swear word of their choice. Next, they had to repeat the same activity while uttering a random non-swear word. The team found that people could bear the water longer while mouthing profanity. Another counter-intuitive finding from Stephens’ previous study: People who swear more are also more articulate in the language they typically curse in.

Foul-mouthed folks are also more honest in general, found scientists at the University of Cambridge last year. This may seem like a paradox. Aren’t we more likely not to trust someone who is delivering truths saddled with a heavy dose of f-words and s-words? “Saying what you really think isn’t necessarily likeable, in fact quite the opposite," David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data analytics at the University of Cambridge and a co-author of the study, says on email. “We sugar-coat the things we say to spare the feelings of others, so honesty can be brutal. It’s probably polarizing—those who agree with the person’s honest opinion like them a lot for saying it."

Choose your words

But while swearing has its benefits, swearing appropriately could be key. Different issues rile different nationalities—and that’s why swearing tendencies vary across countries. “Different countries have very different societal taboos," says Byrne. “In France, the swearing is very similar to British or American. It’s about bodily functions, sex, and, to some degree, race and gender. But if you go to Canada, the most powerful swearing is religious. It’s to do with the Catholic church."

The intensity of swear words varies across languages, too. Take the case of the classic f-word. It’s very flexible. You can use it as an adverb: That is so f***** amazing. Or a verb: Don’t f*** with me any more.

The Spanish equivalent, “j****", isn’t that flexible. In German, as well as Hindi, the common insults refer to animals such as pigs. In English, that’s not much of an insult, Byrne says.

Byrne conducted a study and found that football fans on Twitter used “f***" and “s***" differently during a match. “They use the f-word as much when they are angry as when they’re not angry," Byrne says. “But people use s*** only when they’re angry."

It begs the question: How do Indians swear?

Not many psychologists seem to have examined this. Hansika Kapoor, a researcher at Monk Prayogshala, a Mumbai-based not-for-profit academic institution, set out to study swearing trends in India. Kapoor was interested in knowing why we swear so frequently even though swearing is generally considered inappropriate. Over 500 participants were surveyed online—half of them were Indians and the other half, a mixed batch of many nationalities abroad—in 2014.

Kapoor’s team conducted two studies. In the first, the participants were provided with mild, moderate and severe swear words in casual and abusive settings. They had to report whether the swear word was appropriate or not for that setting. In the second study, Kapoor’s team gave participants fill-in-the-blank type sentences. They had to select one swear word—mild, moderate, or severe—which they found most appropriate in the given context.

Kapoor says on the phone that Indians appeared to be more tolerant towards swearing, but chose not to swear much themselves. She concluded: “Thus, rating swearing behaviour as appropriate or offensive or taboo may not be associated with actual swearing behaviour, especially when contextualized."

Kapoor adds a caveat: People tend to swear more profusely in their native tongue. The study was conducted in English, so it may not necessarily be a true reflection of Indians’ swearing patterns.

Do only men get to swear?

Oh, and do women swear less than men? Byrne says it’s an 18th century attitude that women shouldn’t swear as much as men. In many ways, it’s similar to conventional beliefs like boys don’t cry. “The world would be a much better place if men and women were both allowed to swear and cry. People put them in emotional boxes where half of the emotional register isn’t available to them—that’s so crippling," Byrne says.

Kapoor’s analysis also revealed gender-related insights: Indian women found swearing more inappropriate than Indian men. There wasn’t this kind of gender disparity among non-Indian participants. And among non-Indians, women were as likely to swear as men.

Much of parental disciplining revolves around controlling bad habits such as swearing. Yet research in the US shows that children are beginning to swear earlier than they used to—and that’s partly because adults are swearing more in general.

Byrne, however, believes children should be taught to swear. “If you teach them how to use swearing appropriately and judiciously, children are less likely to have an emotional outburst or swear inappropriately," she says. “It’s kind of like alcohol—the reason French teenagers don’t get drunk like British teenagers is because French parents introduce alcohol with meals earlier, or when their children are in their early teens. There’s no mystery to it. And it’s just seen as part of adult life in certain times in certain ways."

How do you swear judiciously though? For example, Byrne says, a team leader could get colleagues to get cracking by saying something like: “People, give me the f****** results." But he would only be creating enemies at work if he were to yell “f*** you" at a colleague.

Old habits

Expletives that indicate illicit relationships with someone’s mother or sister are common in both English and Hindi. Kapoor says that just shows society’s attitudes towards women. “Almost all severe swears, including in our study, are related to women or are related to relational terms to mothers or sisters," says Kapoor. “It does perpetuate a culture of attitudes towards women. It has a number of connotations related to women’s sexuality. For example, whore and randi reflect on women’s sexuality and sexual violence towards women." While these swear words have negative connotations, they have been used so liberally that they have lost their significance.

While Indians don’t swear as much as people from other countries, it is not uncommon to find a group of Indian men enjoying chai over a carnival of swear words.

“Context mediates the amount of offensiveness of a swear word," says Kapoor. “Even though a man may be extremely respectful towards women, they may still use these words because it is a conditioned aspect of their language and it is a conditioned aspect of how they bond with other men." The more frequently a swear word is used, the more likely it is to lose its impact, she adds.

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