The first time I can remember saying a swear word, my mom was helping my sister in a public restroom at the mall when her wallet fell out of her purse and her impressive collection of coins spilled out on the tile floor. Cool as a cucumber, she started picking them up, smiling sheepishly up at the rest of the people in the bathroom. I remember thinking in my head that if she wasn't going to react to the inconvenience, that I'd go ahead and help her. "F*ck," I said, so candidly and without conviction that I'm pretty sure my mom tried not to laugh before calmly explaining that, obviously, that was not an OK thing for my small self to be exclaiming in public.
As the Hermione Granger of my friend group, I took rules seriously growing up, and very steadfastly didn't cuss again until I was probably 13 or so. I grew up with parents who occasionally cussed, but like that time I was in the bathroom stall, they would never do it with much conviction. It was muttered when a sock got stuck on a toenail, or if someone cut us off in traffic — but unlike a lot of families I knew growing up, nobody ever used swear words in arguments or to hurt each other. They were more like decorative exclamations that colored the day.
When I started swearing as a teenager, they were a few half-hearted reminders that I shouldn't, but eventually it became pretty lax when everybody determined that Loud Mouth (TM) was just my brand. I mean, don't get me wrong: I can turn it off. I babysat in high school, worked daycare throughout college, and occasionally do things on live camera that require me to, y'know, not cuss up a storm. But for some reason I've just gotten so comfortable spouting off run-of-the-mill vulgarities that outside of those situations, I don't even notice it anymore.
Which brings us to this diabolical and ultimately soul-crushing experiment — one girl, living in Trash Hole Island (aka New York), attempting not to swear for a week. Sounds easy enough, right? WRONG. You might have thought this was an article, friends, but this is actually a journey chronicling the waking nightmare of the last week of my life. Remember me as I was, because after last week I may never recover.
I can't lie. I got my headphones tangled in the elliptical at the gym and muttered a "sh*t." It was, unsurprisingly, the very first thing I said that morning, and for sure within full earshot of all the old men in their 60s also trying to get their gym on at 6 a.m. (I took this sad sweaty shame selfie to preserve the moment.)
Having messed up in the literal first hour of this experiment, I decided to give myself three strikes. And TBQH, guys: I used up all those three strikes on the first damn day.
Here is something I realized about myself pretty quickly: I don't swear when I'm angry. OK, I do, but it's not just that — I swear when I'm excited, I swear when I'm trying to over-exaggerate for effect (read: most of the time I open my mouth), I swear when I'm breathing. Strike two came when a co-worker had good news, and instead of saying congratulations, I let out long and appreciative, "Sh********t!" Strike three came when I was on a walk with a co-worker and used "f*ck ton" as a general unit of measurement.
I made it to the end of the day with my three strikes, but GOLLY GEE NOT SWEARING WILLICKERS, was it hard.
I'd moderately survived the first day, so I was feeling smug enough to take a mirror selfie. I quickly learned that that smugness was undeserved.
To be fair, I didn't cuss on the second day. To be less fair, I was cussing up a storm in my head. Without any filter to get them out into the real world, my brain become a cluttered maelstrom of obscenities that quickly morphed into Dark, Dark Thoughts — if someone was walking too slow and blocking my path, I would internally wish all of the plagues of Egypt on them. I may have looked real chill in my city slicker sunglasses, but secretly I was a one-woman soul-sucking sea hag wishing death upon everyone in my path.
The good news is, I'm not alone in this #struggle. Perspectives on Psychological Science explained in "The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words" in 2009 that swearing, for a lot of people, is a coping mechanism to release stress and frustration. Going cold turkey on your coping mechanism was bound to get ugly, and get ugly it did.
The only way I can explain trying not to swear to a person who doesn't love swearing is that it feels like going on a verbal diet. Like, there was a time I briefly thought I might be lactose intolerant and didn't have dairy for two weeks, and literally every time I went to the fridge I'd wrap my hot little hands around some shredded cheese and be like, "OH, RIGHT, NOPE." That's how it felt — except instead of reminding myself three to six times a day at mealtimes, it was every single second of my life.
At one point in the day I just stopped talking. I mean, I was at work. You're technically not supposed to talk the whole day anyway. But if you've met me in real life, you know that my ability to talk people's ears off is unprecedented and it's a miracle I haven't been shanked yet.
(That up there is a picture of me holding a word I wasn't allowed to say. If you squint, my eyes are screaming.)
By day four, I had invented or borrowed my own "swear words". Among them: "son of a bantha" and "sithspit" from Star Wars (don't look at me), "fudge monkey" from the third grade, "gee willickers" from god only knows where, and "afghadkfgjadfgal" in any and all GChat situations.
I was getting pretty good at catching myself before I swore by day four, but I was also feeling more uncomfortable on this day than I had the entire week. I finally figured out the root of it mid-conversation with a few coworkers: not being able to swear made me feel lame AF. It's only natural for humans to assimilate to the group — it's why those psychological experiments of people standing in weird ways in elevators to see if other people will also do it (spoiler alert: they will) exist. You hear other people swearing, you want to feel like you belong to the group, so you swear, too.
I started to realize the more frustrated I got that I didn't just use swearing as an outlet to express myself — I used it to "prove" myself. My whole life I've been a baby face and instantly "typed" as a goody-goody because of my aggressively cheerful nature, but swearing, at least, gave me an ~edge~. Now my ~edge~ was gone, and I felt strangely naked without it.
Turns out there's some research that totally has my back on this phenomenon — in some environments, swearing is a tool for group solidarity. You build a certain rapport and comfort with people you "trust" not to judge you when you say these kinds of words, so you feel closer to them. It's human behavior to mimic other people's gestures and speech patterns in social situations — this is just one more way we unconsciously try to put each other and ourselves at ease.
And here I was, f*cking the whole thing up.
The night before day five I had a dream that I was screaming profanities on the subway. Zac Efron was also there. So ... yeah.
In the interest of honesty, day five was a sh*t show. I got a little bit tipsy at dinner off of exactly one glass of wine and decided the sun was down on the last day of the experiment, so I was allowed to start swearing again — so SWEAR I DID. Sorry not sorry, everyone in midtown Manhattan, for the veritable verbal orgasm I had in public that night. #WorthIt.
SH*T F*CK HELL DAMN MOTHEREFFING CRAP D*NALD TR*MP SH********TTTTTT.
UGH, does that feel good.
While I will say right off the bat that I am never, ever, ever (ever) doing this experiment again, for the sake of my sanity and the sanity of everyone around me, it was nonetheless an insightful journey. I learned that I don't just swear because I'm a no good punk like I always secretly suspected I was. I swear as a way of expressing my individual human self, as a way of letting off steam, as a way of connecting to my peeps. I swear because it makes me feel damn good and weirdly empowered, like a renegade space pirate.
And getting to swear again at the end of the week? It basically felt like my whole brain had equilibrium again. Yes, I acknowledge that it is utterly ridiculous that a string of nonsense sounds that humans assigned arbitrary meaning to are so ridiculously satisfying to let rip. But at the same time, I am not immune to the strange thrill of saying words that are ~taboo~, and I doubt I ever will be.
That being said, I have permanently added "gee willickers" to my lexicon and everyone around me will just have to deal.
Images: Rosanne Salvatore/Bustle; Emma Lord/Bustle