Is swearing good for you and your team?

I feel like I’m opening a can of worms with this post, about swearing.

I’ve been blogging for ten years. This is my 401st post. I rarely swear. As best as my memory serves me, the number of times I’ve cussed on this blog is not far removed from zero. That seems a bit odd to me; perhaps I’m being inauthentic? After all, I swore lots in my youth. I worked in contexts, e.g., construction sites, where swearing was ubiquitous. I played the game. I am what I’ve been.

Somewhere along the way, I largely gave up on swearing. I still swear, a bit, in informal contexts. Yet, in professional contexts, rarely, do I swear.  For example; as a mediator, I’ve brokered hundreds of disputes. Sometimes, when the conversation got particularly heated (or even when it didn’t), one party or another would swear to make their point. When that happened, though I often mirrored back what I perceived as their intensity (so they knew I was listening), I got intense without swearing.

The paradox of swearing

As someone devoted to bridging differences between people, I find swearing offers us a rich and fascinating paradox; a cornucopia of contradictions worth exploring. After all, for some people, swearing is part of their identity. It is what it is. For others, swearing is a come-down, a signal of weakness, or worse; anger, bullying, violence… Swearing can separate us. Swearing can also bring us together, a connective thread of communication. I’m reluctant to pass a carte blanche judgement on swearing.

Swearing is good for you

Dr. Emma Bryne, author of Swearing is good for you: The amazing science of bad language, is known as the “sweary scientist” and as an “honest-to-goodness robot scientist”. According to Bryne:

“Swearing helps us deal better with our pain and frustration, it helps to build tighter social groups and it’s a good sign that we might be a bout to snap, which means that it forestalls violence. Without swearing, we’d have to resort to the biting, gouging and shit flinging that our other primate cousins use to keep their societies in check.”

Bryne looks to Magnus Ljun (Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study) for a definition of swearing. According to Ljun, ‘swear’ words have four common elements:

  • the use of taboo words like ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’,
  • which aren’t used literally,
  • which are fairly formulaic,
  • And, which are emotive: swearing sends a signal about the speaker’s state of mind.

In her book, Bryne touches swearing myths, swearing and gender (and sexuality), swearing and teamwork, swearing and new immigrants, and more.

A few takeaways for me, from her book:

  • “Swearing helps women as much as men, but in the real world, with long term, life-changing pain, women lose out when they swear.”
  • Swearing and sexuality – “Swearing in both sexes is associated with sexuality and – given that women are judged more harshly than men for their sexual adventures – women supposedly keep a lid on bad language to prevent accusations of bad behaviour. Swearing is also part of that direct register that we are comfortable hearing from men but that still seems aberrant coming from a woman. However this attitude is relatively recent (history shows differently!)”
  • Swearing is a powerful instrument, socially and emotionally – “If women wept less they would swear more. Instead of swooning or breaking into tears, she will often swear and then do whatever is indicated. It is, in our view, a great advance upon the old style.”
  • Credibility paradox – “Swearing diminishes the speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness, especially if the speaker is a woman.” Paradoxically, “swearing indicates the person is more likely to be telling the truth.”
  • Trying too hard not to swear may be more trouble than its worth. “Trying hard not to do something (swear) is taxing/stressful on brain/willpower, leading to less self-control (in that area) as time goes on… the ‘ego-depletion model of self-control’”. This reminds me of prohibiting substances – telling people not to do something often just brings it to their attention (and interest) more.
  • The team that swears together stays together (with a caveat) – Aussie/New Zealand research, “Taking the Piss’: Functions of Banter in the IT Industry”, shows “piss-taking as such a relational device between people that if the relationship is OK (between team members) you know what you can get away with, which boundaries you can cross and which ones you can’t. It’s not really predicated on race or gender or that sort of thing – it all comes down to how well people know each other.” Bottom line on this one, is how well do you know the other person – my recent post on the science of friendship applies, here.
  • Warn newcomers to the workplace place ahead of time (especially applicable to new immigrants) if swearing is a dynamic – “You’re not likely to be able to change the workplace if you’re a lone voice among a whole group who have developed their own ways of talking.”

In my opinion

The role of swearing should be discussed, safely and directly, in every workplace, regardless if the swearing is perceived as a requirement or barrier to full participation.  How we talk about swearing is as challenging and important as the swearing, itself. Talking about swearing is a difficult conversation.

Being able to swear, or not swear, in context, is an advantage. Psychologically androgynous individuals make good collaboration partners. They blend the best of genders.

Potentially, swearing has much to offer – it can help us bear pain, work together, and communicate emotions.

Speak Your Mind