A few months ago I was on the phone with the editor-in-chief of a women’s health magazine — she was interviewing me for a short-term editing job — and I was feeling good. We had never spoken before, but were around the same age and working in the same corner of journalism, and we seemed to get each other. We clicked. And then, just as I was silently congratulating myself on not coming across as socially inept, it happened.
“There’s just so fucking much we have to deliver, and we could really use some help.”
In that moment, I knew that whatever easy rapport we had enjoyed was about to get weird. Not because I was offended in any way — but because of my forking inability to swear.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to convincingly curse. If I attempt to curse around people who know me well, they either lovingly laugh in an oh, honey kind of way or seem genuinely concerned about my mental health. And if I’m chatting with a new friend or colleague and they start dropping F-bombs, I freeze up like I’m Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin being asked about his sexual escapades — I know I won’t be able to reciprocate, and I fear I will be found out. It’s like I’m in high school all over again.
The rest of the call went fine, I guess, but as I heard the self-assurance drain out of my voice, it occurred to me: Was I paying a price — personally and professionally — for talking like Ned Flanders?
In her new book Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, author Emma Byrne makes a strong case that, at least to some extent, the answer is yes. The British scientist writes in the book’s introduction that swearing is “socially and emotionally essential” and “beneficial to us both as individuals and as a species.” Swearing is so fundamental to human expression, she reveals, that even people with neurological conditions that cause them to lose the ability to speak regular words are still able to swear. Swearing can offer emotional catharsis and improve productivity. Her hope, she writes, is that we “might give it the respect it fucking deserves.”
Byrne’s book is just the latest evidence that we’re moving toward a more cursing-positive culture. Over the past few years, a growing body of pro-swearing research has suggested cursing can be linked to everything from intelligence to authenticity to a greater ability to withstand pain. (What the fuck?, said me, never.) When Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand swore during a speech in June, she was applauded for capturing her supporters’ rage. A slew of recent books with curse words in their title have hit best-seller lists, from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck to You Are a Badass and the phenomenon that was Go the F**k to Sleep. Even the notoriously curse-averse New York Times recently ran a piece that made “the case for cursing.”
But the development that intrigues me most, and that Byrne discusses in colorful detail in her book, is a series of studies showing how swearing can fuel intimacy and bonding — and make you more likable. Byrne, who works by day in a male-dominated tech job, says that for her, swearing is a “necessary rite of passage” when she joins a new company. And she’s not alone. “From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t,” she writes. One study, based out of New Zealand, explored how factory workers exchange “fucks” in a complex code of politeness. A study published earlier this year backs up this and other research, suggesting swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation … and cohesion.”
Of course, I’ve observed firsthand how swearing can be a powerful tool for signaling to someone, I feel you. “Swearing allows us to demonstrate this sort of wider emotional repertoire in our language,” Byrne told me when we spoke. (She was sympathetic to my reservations.) “When you’re not swearing at someone, when you’re not being abusive toward them, you’re sending a very subtle signal about your emotional state.” And when you don’t return a friendly swear, Byrne said, “It’s weirdly like not reciprocating a hug, isn’t it?”
When I spoke with Michael Adams, author of the 2016 book In Praise of Profanity and an English professor at Indiana University, he confirmed that swearing can be a “powerful interpersonal bonding tool,” in part because it does still carry some social risk — it’s still a little bit taboo — so it imparts a feeling of trust in whomever you’re swearing with. People often swear to fit in or show solidarity, he says — and it works. “It reassures people that you are thinking the way they’re thinking.”
So why is swearing so freaking difficult for me? According to Byrne, every person’s individual comfort level with swearing can be attributed to a complex cocktail of personality and environment. My discomfort runs so deep that when my editor suggested I try casually cursing around friends and family for this article, the very thought of it made my entire body tense up with anxiety. When I finally succeeded in dropping some “fucks” into a conversation with my husband (I did have some fucks to give), he gently told me I sounded like I was auditioning for a part in a play. It’s just not me.
I grew up in the South, in a conservative community where swearing in public was a serious offense. One time in the fourth grade, a kid said the f-word during recess and someone tattled on him. To determine his guilt, our teacher asked everyone who overheard the crime to write down the word on a scrap of paper. The message was clear: The word was so offensive we couldn’t dare utter it out loud.
There wasn’t much swearing in my house, either. On top of all this, I’m a pretty measured person who, I’ve been told, presents pretty wholesomely. I feel things passionately, but I express myself carefully. I don’t feel like I’m repressing anything, but I wouldn’t blame someone for assuming that. The boldest thing about my presentation is an occasional “bold lip.” Perhaps this is why, when I told my mom I was writing this article, she confessed that, knowing I’m not a swearer, she had been holding her tongue around me my entire adult life.
Our swearing styles are deeply influenced by our particular circumstances, Byrne told me — “by time and place and class and gender and all the rest of it.”
Oh, right — there’s also my gender.
Perhaps more than swearing’s power to help one withstand pain or even bond, it’s Byrne’s revelations about swearing and gender that make me want to try just a little bit harder to curse: Thanks to a long and sexist history, researchers told Byrne, for women, swearing is still somehow seen as a “gender transgressive act.”
For centuries, men and women both swore with abandon. But the early 18th century saw a major cultural shift in gender-based expression, writes Byrne, during which men were conditioned to communicate with power and women with purity. “Influential commentators at the time encouraged women to adopt a ‘clean’ style of language, shunning taboo words — especially those that related to bodily functions — on pain of social exclusion and the threat of an eternity in hell.” But by holding onto the right to swear, Byrne writes, “men also held on to the power to express a much wider range of emotional states.” Meanwhile, “those insisting that women’s language should be pure managed to rip the most powerful linguistic tool out of [our] hands (and mouths and minds).”
While research suggests the percentage of women who swear is on the rise, these attitudes persist even today. “There is still this belief that an important part of womanhood — an important feminine value — is our purity, our innocence, our lack of worldliness. Which, when you think about it, is really fucked up,” says Bryne. “And it’s just so pervasive … When a woman swears, when a woman loses her temper, when a woman demonstrates aggression, she somehow loses woman points.”
Probably more than I realize, I’ve absorbed the cultural message that, as a woman, I should be “nice” and “polite.” That I should tone myself down. That “good” girls don’t use “bad” words. But I now know that when women swear — when Kirsten Gillibrand says “fuck” at a conference or Sarah Silverman sings the word “cunt” — we’re using the words for the same entirely human reasons everyone else does. We swear to bond, we swear to show support and feel supported, we swear to feel emotional release and better withstand pain.
Perhaps I really should force myself to swear more. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from Byrne, it’s that for swearing to be effective, for it to truly help you win friends and influence people and experience catharsis and come across as authentic, it has to actually be authentic. “Trying to swear for swearing’s sake — the empathy may be real, but it will come across as totally fake,” says Byrne. That, I know well. So friends, future employers, Mom — please (please!) don’t hold back around me. Know that I feel you. I’m still learning how to use my curse words. And in the meantime, I just can’t forking fake it.