The Scientific, Badass Benefits Of Swearing

by JR Thorpe

I'm Australian. What my country regards as "swearing" is, shall we say, slightly more lenient than other places — this is, after all, the place where you call friends the "c" word and hostile strangers "mate," and where the words "bloody" and "f*ck" are often simply ways to emphasize a point. But we hardly have the monopoly on swearing; taboo words, as they're called, are a part of many cultures, and can be used for everything from expressing an emotion to declaring anxiety or simply, as expletive expert Ruth Wajnryb declares in Expletive Deleted, "a statement of quality and color about the noun that is to follow." But there are actual scientific benefits to swearing up a storm, beyond simply shocking your Aunt Nancy.

Swearing is a gendered thing, too. Women are not supposed to be swearers; it has been a historical point of some parts of feminism to reclaim the swearword, particularly ones lobbed at female sexuality and genitalia, as powerful or at least female-owned (p*ssy grabs back). We're discovering, though, that the attributes and benefits of swearing are not gender-centric, and that women and men get much the same thing out of it.

The lesson? If you're feeling a little frustrated today, swear away, swear well, and use as many colorful expletives as possible.

It Makes People Realize You're More Honest

A new study just released found something interesting: the more people swear, the more honest they seem to be in their interactions with others. It's a puzzling discovery that adds to another truth about profanity and its uses in context: that we tend to think that people who swear a lot are fundamentally more sincere. Many of us, it seems, associate use of swearing or cuss words with intensity and profound feeling, and previous research has discovered a link between a propensity to swear and the perception of persuasive truthfulness.

It seems that perception may actually be borne out, at least in some people. The new research looked at how much people swore, versus how they actually did in lie detector tests or in algorithms that detected patterns of truth or falsehood in social media posts. The more swear-heavy a person was in their everyday life, the more likely they were to be more truthful overall.

It Helps Avoid Violence

The relationship between swearing and strong emotion is, in many cultures, a strong one — even if you're an Australian or a sailor, you're still more likely to swear when something horrifying, surprising, or otherwise emotionally intense happens. A study has shown, for instance, that we tend to swear with more variety and color when we're emotionally aroused by something. (The array of profanity used by Tintin's Captain Haddock indicates that he was probably extremely emotionally aroused all the time.)

The benefit of expressing our emotions in this way, via a verbal explosion, has been hypothesized to help us avoid getting into nasty conflicts if we express it in other ways. It's a theory taken from the animal world, where vocal displays are often seen as preferable to getting into fights. In "Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective," researchers note that "While attacking costs a lot of energy and can lead to severe physical damage, often it will be much more effective and less costly to deploy alternative methods like growling." Swearing is meant to be an emotional outlet as an alternative to violence. It's better, and less risky, to let out a well-placed f*ck than to punch somebody.

It Ups Your Pain Tolerance

In one of the most fascinating sets of studies ever done about swearing, it was discovered that swearing actually aids in our pain tolerance. No, really. And it works better if you're not a general swearer in everyday life.

The studies on the hypoalgesic (pain-lessening) value of swearwords found a few things. One was that, if people had their hands in ice water, they could cope with the pain of it much better if they repeated a swear word throughout the experience, a finding that later studies would tie to the emotion of aggression: the more aggressive we feel, the more tolerant we are of pain. Another study found that, intriguingly, this effect was dependent on whether people were habitual swearers. If they tended to cuss regularly, they were less likely to feel the pain-relief benefits of swearing up a storm while enduring something painful. So if you're undergoing something deeply unpleasant, you may not get a lot of help out of screaming four-letter words if that's just something you regularly do on a Friday night.

It May Aid Social Bonding

This is a social theory of swearing, but it's one that makes perfect sense. Taboo language is, in many contexts, private language; we aren't meant to unleash the worst of our swearing on people we don't know. It's informal, comfortable, unprofessional, and not for public consumption. The theory goes, then, that swearing around people in an intimate context may actually bring you closer together, as it displays a level of comfort and a breaking down of barriers, and indicates that we're willing to take the social risk of saying something potentially offensive.

It's not recommended as an opening gambit, but as a way of producing a closer feeling in response to emotional stimuli, it may well be the thing that makes your mother and your new boyfriend, for instance, bond up a storm. (Maybe not, though. Don't take that as a universal if your mother is the type to wash peoples' mouths out with soap.)

It Probably Means You Have Better Verbal Abilities

If your mother ever told you that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, she's wrong. A 2015 study compared knowledge and usage of "taboo words" (ie cusses) to general fluency and the size of people's lexicons, and found that "fluency is fluency;" in other words, if you use a lot of inventive swearing, you're also going to have a big vocabulary. People who could write down a huge variety of swear words also tended to be stars at vocabulary tests, and, intriguingly, the researchers found that there was no gender difference in taboo word knowledge; women were just as proficient in their swearing storage as men. Delicate flowers, my ass. To prove the theory you need to do more than just call somebody a f*cker, though. Get inventive! Might I suggest this list of old-school swearwords?