The arguments for and against swearing

BBC forced to apologise for broadcasting Boat Race F-bomb – but is swearing really so bad?

Cartoon swearing
(Image credit: Epoxydude/Getty Images)

The BBC has been forced to issue a swift apology after broadcasting a swear word during its coverage of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

The profanity in question was uttered by the cox of the Cambridge women’s crew, despite the BBC warning teams each year against swearing, reported The Telegraph. A system is thought to be in place that would “see more than one instance of offensive language result in a cut taking place”, added the paper.

But although the BBC was forced to “apologise for any offence caused”, studies suggest that the subject of swearing is not always such a black and white issue.

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1. Pro: linked to honesty

The act of swearing is often associated with anger and irritation, but more than one study has found there to be a connection between profanity and honesty.

In 2017, a team of psychologists from the Netherlands, the UK, the US and Hong Kong surveyed 276 participants about their most commonly used and favourite swear words. They then took part in a lie detector test, which found that the people who used the most swear words were also less likely to be lying.

“Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion,” said Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in big data analytics at the University of Cambridge and one of the researchers behind the study. “Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views.”

The science news site also reported on a second survey carried out by the same team, which involved measuring the use of swear words in the online social interactions of 75,000 US-based Facebook users.

“The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’,” explained the site.

2. Con: can harm your career

Employees who curse in the workplace “may lose more than loose change” in a swear jar and could see themselves actually missing out on a promotion as a result, according to a 2012 study of 2,000 hiring managers and 3,800 staff by the US CareerBuilder website.

CareerBuilder found that 64% of employers said that they’d think less of an employee who repeatedly used profanities, while 57% said they’d be less likely to promote someone who swore in the office.

Most employers (81%) said an employee’s professionalism was brought into question when they swore.

3. Pro: better vocabulary

A common criticism thrown at people who swear is that they utter obscenities because they cannot find more intelligent words to express themselves with. This school of thought was evidenced by the CareerBuilder study, which found that 54% of employers thought swearing at work made an employee appear less intelligent.

However, a piece of research in 2015 disproved this widely held view, finding that “people who are well-versed in curse words are more likely to have greater overall language fluency too”, reported Science Alert.

Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts carried out two experiments which involved subjecting a small sample of participants to various verbal fluency tests.

In a report published in the journal Language Scientists, they said they found that “the ability to generate curse words was not an index of overall language poverty” and that “taboo fluency” had a positive correlation with other measures of verbal fluency.

“A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies,” the researchers concluded.

4. Con: can alienate elderly

Even if you are not personally offended by swearing, research shows that a significant proportion of older people are. As a result, cursing in front of them could be seen as alienating and even threatening behaviour.

A study by the polling firm Ipsos Mori, commissioned by the Daily Mail in 2010, found TV swearing to be a major cause for concern, especially among women and the over-55s. Around 45% of over-55s said they had been personally offended by incidents of TV swearing in the past year.

And a similar study in 2016 by Ofcom found that “older people had a low tolerance for swearing, and some wanted it banned completely”, said The Guardian. “To avoid these strong emotional reactions, it may sound like a good idea to put a stop to foul language at work.”

5. Pro: can be a pain relief

Research has also found there to be a connection between swearing and pain relief. A 2009 study into swearing as a response to pain found that “if you pinch your finger in the car door, you may well feel less pain if you say ‘sh*t’ instead of ‘shoot’”, said CNN.

“The headline message is that swearing helps you cope with pain,” said the study’s lead author, psychologist Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer at Keele University in Staffordshire.

He explained to CNN that swearing triggers “an emotional response in yourself, which triggers a mild stress response, which carries with it a stress-induced reduction in pain”.

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