What Happened When I Tried to Stop Swearing
“Shirt!” “Fork!” “Zounds!” “Fahrvergnügen!” “Covfefe!”
Yes, my family and I shouted some strange things. The goal was to eliminate swearing, at least for a couple of weeks, with the hope that tightening our loose lips might also rid us of negativity. It was time to go “full Ned Flanders.” Only mild exclamations and gibes (“Gosh!” “Jerk!”) or fake/outdated ones (inspired, say, by The Good Place, Shakespeare or old car ads) would be allowed.
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“F--- that!” said my husband, Bill, when I asked whether he’d be up for the experiment. “How am I supposed to talk about the news?”
But then, being the academic that he is, he warmed to it. Our tween daughter, Lily, and teenage son, Davey (away at college), were intrigued by it, too. Swearing is, after all, one of humanity’s more fascinating habits. It’s as old as the hills, but still able to shock. It can earn you laughs, or get you fined by the NBA.
And interestingly enough, the more scientists study it, the more they realize how badly we need it.
“Swearing plays numerous roles in helping us communicate, manage and understand our emotions,” says British research scientist Emma Byrne, who recently met me in London for tea, scones and a side of four-letter words. Want proof we find it crucial? Kids as young as 2 invent expressions related to the no-no’s of their world, Byrne says. (Consider the ever-popular poopyhead.) Even chimpanzees that use sign language can start working blue—turning the sign for dirty into an insult, for instance. As Byrne puts it in her book, Swearing Is Good for You, profanity “teaches us a lot about how our brains, our minds and even our societies work.”
[Heavens], this is hard!
My family’s slipups began almost immediately, I’m sorry to say. Not that we’re the world’s biggest potty mouths—but except for Lily (who rarely strays beyond “Oh, my God!”), let’s just say a sitcom about us would air on cable. Within days of swearing off swearing, Bill was back to dropping f-bombs in traffic jams. Lily and I clapped hands over our mouths in moments of surprise, fear and dismay, after banned words flew out as reflexively as sneezes.None of which would raise scientific eyebrows.
Research on people with brain damage and Tourette’s syndrome suggests that impulsive curses might involve different brain structures than deliberate language—ancient structures tied to emotion and automatic processes, writes Benjamin Bergen in his book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.
Because taboo words evoke such strong reactions, they become ingrained early. Expressions we adopt later, no matter how packed with satisfying consonants, lack the power of words our parents told us are bad. “It’s very hard to not use that kind of swearing, in the same way it’s very hard not to rub a bruise,” Byrne says.
[Goodness], that’s painful!
It turns out swearing might, in fact, dull some physical pain, too. In a study led by British psychologist Richard Stephens, people were able to keep one hand in almost-freezing water far longer if they cursed while doing it. Neutral words didn’t cut it. In another Stephens study, a bout of swearing gave people more grip strength and helped them pedal harder on an exercise bike.
How do mere syllables accomplish all of this? Swearing seems bound up with the fight-or-flight response that prepares us for a challenge, Bergen tells me. It raises our heart rate and blood pressure, funnels blood toward our extremities, and makes us sweat.
Small wonder that when Bill missed a highway exit, or Davey felt swamped with homework, or Lily saw a centipede, or I dropped my iPhone on my face (true story), managing not to swear proved a hollow victory. “It felt sort of like when my ear’s clogged,” Davey said. “Just this annoying thing that’s not quite right.”
I’m so [Overwhelmingly] sorry!
Equally challenging: swear-free social situations. More than once during my family’s experiment, friends shared upsetting news from their lives, and it didn’t feel nearly sympathetic enough to respond, “Gosh, that’s awful!” The goofiness involved in not swearing can actually make a situation awkward. A pal told me that hearing a new acquaintance blurt, “H-E-double hockey sticks!” changed her opinion of the woman: “I still think she’s a sweet person, but I’m not thinking potential friend.”
Indeed, contrary to what your mother might have taught you, swearing can be key for greasing the wheels of relationships. We want our friends and colleagues to speak the way we speak, Byrne says. Workplace studies seem to bear this out.
Salty words might even make us more influential. “We’ve known for a while that people are often perceived as more honest when they swear,” Bergen says. More persuasive, too. Witness a study at Northern Illinois University in which students were more likely to agree with speeches containing swear words. Or consider motivational speaker Tony Robbins. In the documentary I Am Not Your Guru, he says taboo words help him “interrupt the noise in people’s heads.… That’s how they change.” After he calls one woman’s overindulgent father a “mother[lover]” and urges her to “make the [toll free] call” to an ill-suited boyfriend, the woman says she didn’t enjoy Robbins’s attitude, but adds: “If he would have been all nice and namsy-pamsy, I wouldn’t have done [anything].”
Then there’s the time-honored link between cusswords and humor. “I think swearing is funny because there’s an element of shock, surprise, disjunction,” Byrne says.
Despite all this, though—and despite the fact that swearing is seen less and less as the province of lowlifes, especially for men—it can still backfire. Research suggests that if we don’t expect off-color language from a given person (a teacher in a classroom, say), then the use of it could make us dislike them and their opinions. Plus, of course, profanity has the power to wound—and not just the racial slurs or graphic terms you might be thinking of. Depending on where you live, words ranging from God to tuberculosis can offend people to the core. Byrne, for one, hopes Western society will get better at sticking with swears related to “the copulatory and excretory—the things we pretty much have in common—as opposed to slurs, which set us apart.”
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Forget that [Unnatural Ordeal].
One evening during our experiment, while taking a walk, Bill and I realized it was true: We couldn’t discuss the news anymore without using certain words. And so we switched from ranting about our least-favorite politician to admiring the sunset and planning a vacation. Afterward, we agreed it was one of our more relaxing walks in recent memory. Life at home had started to feel more peaceful to me, too, now that I was less apt to hear Bill curse a blue streak when our cats yowled at 3 a.m. Bill felt a bit calmer as well. “Not swearing forces you to be mindful, to keep some distance from your anger and get control of yourself,” he theorized. Could it be that impeding our tongues was improving our marriage and willpower?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Not swearing can, logically, make those around you calmer. Hearing others curse in fear or anger “tends to elicit the same in others,” Byrne says. And minding your language might help you “pay more attention to regulating emotions,” Bergen says.
On the other hand, suppressing cusswords involves “an opportunity cost,” Bergen points out. When you’re laser-focused on your vocabulary, “maybe you aren’t paying as much attention to the details of the conversation you’re having.” Which wouldn’t be great for marriage. Ditto, naturally, for fistfights. “People who swear at each other are less likely to use actual physical violence,” Byrne says. “So swearing has been quite useful to us as a social species.”
As for my hope that not swearing could goose willpower across the board, bilingual people imply otherwise. “Bilinguals spend their lives deciding not to say words that are on the tip of their tongue, because they’re in the wrong language,” Bergen says. But research shows that this self-control applies to language only. “They’re not better [than other people] at deciding not to have a cigarette or a second piece of pie.”
Sweet [Potatoes], we’re back!
When the trial balloon ended, our restored freedom tasted good indeed. “It felt more meaningful once I was able to swear again,” Davey said, speaking pretty much for the whole family. “Like having dessert when you haven’t had it for a week.”
Somehow, though, we haven’t been swearing as much as we used to. Maybe our time off reminded us that, as Byrne says, “If you have no taboos left because swearing is so normalized in your group, no words will have the potency you require (they will all be as unsatisfactory as saying poop would be to most of us).”
Back in the London tearoom, Byrne took a last bite of scone and leaned toward me. “My hypothesis is if you don’t swear as often, then when you do swear, you’re drawing more on those emotional brain structures, because most of your swearing is done only out of strong emotions,” she said. Use naughty words only when you need them most, and they’ll be your friends for life.
Which sounded pretty forking good to me.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.