6 Reasons Why Swearing Is Good for You
Swearing is bad. Any linguistically adventurous child, caught by an adult, will tell you that. Salty language is often considered impolite, offensive, and suggestive of a limited lexicon. But linguists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists say otherwise. For one thing, researchers have found that if you're fluent at cursing, you are likely to have a strong vocabulary as well. Even better, there are a range of circumstances in which dropping a well-timed F-bomb might actually be good for you. So read on and curse if you must. Why the hell not?
1. SWEARING IS CATHARTIC …
If you've ever uttered a few choice words in moments of anger, frustration, pain or sadness, then you've likely experienced the cathartic effect of swearing. Swearing gives us a way to express our emotions and to vent, according to psychologist Timothy Jay, one of the world's leading curse researchers. "It also communicates very effectively, almost immediately, our feelings," Jay told TIME. "And other words don’t do that."
2. … AND INCREASES YOUR TOLERANCE OF PAIN.
In a set of well-known experiments, psychologist Richard Stephens and colleagues examined the relationship between swearing and pain. In the first study, participants dunked their hands in ice-cold water. While doing so, they were asked to repeat either a swear word or neutral word (one they would use to describe a table). Participants who swore were able to keep their hands in the water for longer and perceived less pain.
But the pain-related benefits of swearing are not as great if you're a habitual potty-mouth, according to a 2011 follow-up study published in The Journal of Pain. To really reap the benefits of swearing, you need to aim for the sweet spot: not too much, not too little.
3. SWEARING PUTS YOU IN TOUCH WITH YOUR INNER ANIMAL—AND YET MAKES YOU HUMAN.
Like other mammals, we may yelp in pain when we're hurt or frustrated, a result of our "mammalian rage circuit" being triggered, according to Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker suggests that the instinct to swear is a result of the “cross-wiring of the mammalian rage circuit"—in which signals travel from the amygdala to the hypothalamus and on to the gray matter in the midbrain—"with human concepts and vocal routines."
Swearing in response to strong emotions may be hard-wired in the brain, but the fact that we add a curse or two makes us pretty different from our fellow animals. In her book Swearing Is Good For You, scientist Emma Byrne argues that swearing is a quintessential act of human behavior. "Far from being a simple cry," she writes, "swearing is a complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance."
4. SWEARING MAKES YOU SEEM MORE HONEST TO OTHERS.
Researchers examined the relationship between swearing and truth-telling in a multi-part study published in 2017. They interviewed participants, asking them for their favorite swear words, how often they swore, and why. They then evaluated the participants' trustworthiness and found that those who swore tended to lie less. The data also suggested that "people regard profanity more as a tool for the expression of their genuine emotions, rather than being antisocial and harmful."
The researchers also examined the status messages of nearly 74,000 active Facebook users. Their analysis indicated that "those who used more profanity were more honest in their Facebook status updates."
5. IT HELPS YOU BOND WITH YOUR CO-WORKERS.
Workplace banter peppered with joking insults and swearing can help create a positive work environment. As Byrne notes, such banter is "good for group bonding, and inclusivity makes for a productive workforce."
The much-maligned F-word emerged as the star of one 2004 study published in the Journal of Pragmatics [PDF]. Researchers recorded 35 hours of conversation among a team of soap factory workers in New Zealand. This was a close-knit and highly motivated group. An analysis of their conversations suggested that forms of the F-word were used to express friendliness and solidarity, as well as a means to fix or ease situations involving complaints or refused requests. The team coordinator described all the swearing and joking around as "a 'we know each [other] well' thing … no one really took offense.''
6. SWEARING MAKES PEOPLE LIKE YOU—ESPECIALLY IF YOU'RE IN POLITICS.
Politicians who let loose and swear may have hit upon a way to connect with their voters. One theory is that politicians earn "covert prestige" with their use of foul language. Covert prestige refers to language appreciated by a group of people—say, a politician's voter base—that might not be acceptable to most others. (This is the opposite of overt prestige, in which people use standard, widely acceptable language.) Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University Bloomington, told PBS NewsHour that politicians often seek covert prestige by using "local political dialect" to appeal to certain voters.
Swearing also makes politicians seem more relatable, according to a 2014 study of 110 Italian participants. It found that the use of swear words in a blog post "improved the general impression" of fictional male and female candidates. The study, which was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, also found that swearing made the language seem more informal. But there was a downside: It diminished the "perceived persuasiveness" of the fictional candidate's message.