Profanity! More and more, it seems to be acceptable to use less than pristine language in our business and social discussions. Social media is full of references to the F-word.
Because I am interested in human communication, this led me to wonder:
Why do people swear when they speak? How does it feel when you swear? How does it make other people feel?
I grew up in South Africa, and my first language is Afrikaans. This is a colour full anguage with a whole range of expletives and adjectives which are regarded as socially unacceptable, but which are very descriptive. Swearing in Afrikaans is also thoroughly satisfying because it is regarded as rebellious, bawdy, indelicate, totally improper. And entirely unladylike. Which is probably why most Afrikaner men swear like troopers, but not in female company as this is regarded to be terribly disrespectful. It’s all a bit Victorian and twee.
Here in the UK though, things are different. Swearing in English is a pretty uncreative pursuit as there really only appears to be 2 really socially unacceptable words to use: One relating to carnal knowledge and the other to a delicate part of the female anatomy. And to be honest, only the latter is really still regarded as distasteful to use, because the F-word now seems to be used in most contexts without the gasped intake of breath that would have happened not so long ago.
By means of research, I recently posted a profanity-laden post on Facebook. It elicited some interesting responses, mostly from women:
“I swear more when frustrated or angry. It is when powered by these emotions that my brain can’t think of the right words so swearing is like a release that dissipates the fog in my brain to make me think more clearly.” – Hayley Hilton
“I hate it. It makes me cringe whenever I hear it. I’m no angel though and sometimes let rip. When I worked on a military campsite I started to swear a lot more. I wonder why?” – Gill Romeo
“I used to swear a lot more than I do now. I save it for when I’m really cross!!” – Janie Biddiscombe
“It makes me feel uncomfortable, disappointed (when other people swear)” – Gill Romeo
“Selective swearing ….most effective in moderation. One of my work colleagues used to say “f… off” in such a ladylike and restrained British way that the recipient was eager to oblige!” – Rosie Stockwell
I also had several people who told me off for using language like that, because it was not how they perceived me to speak. It did not fit in with my brand. I must admit, it was pretty colourful! But the telling off made me want to do it some more. I guess that may say something about my character too: Pushing boundaries is certainly a trait of mine.
Writing the post made me feel pretty rebellious and in fact, aggressive. For me, swearing feels like a violent way to express a negative emotion. Sometimes, it gives welcome release to an adrenalin surge or it gives me a particularly emphatic way to say what I think. Overall though, my Afrkaans-ness prevails. I don’t think it’s neccessary to swear.
It can detract from the power of the message. It can be crude and unacceptable. It can also be very funny, hugely observational and deeply liberating.
So this exercise proved one thing to me, which I really already new before: What is acceptable to one, is anathema to another. Do you think it’s okay to swear in conversation?
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