6 Sep 2023

The Ubiquity of Swearing

Four-letter words, previously considered dire obscenities, are increasingly part of everyday speech. We’re all swearing more and, unsurprisingly, the more our language is peppered with swear words, the more tolerant we become. In 2020 the broadcasting regulator Ofcom reported that complaints about swearing had halved in five years; in the following year, anti-swearing complaints accounted for just one per cent of the total.

Scientists agree that swearing can increase sweating and raise heart rate. They also attest that it has the magic power of boosting the tolerance of pain, while reducing the perception of pain (unsurprisingly, swearing is a natural reaction to many painful household accidents). Its disinhibiting power can allow us to discard feelings of restraint and self-control and, as such, it can be liberating. It can be used to express rage and aggression; in many cases a few expletives can discharge angry feelings, preventing a descent into actual violence.

Increasingly, swearing is used freely in everyday speech to express irritation, incredulity, disappointment or despair. It can also be used to add emphasis or reinforce a statement. The profanities are not directed at other people, but at situations or events that have proved to be challenging or overwhelmingly frustrating. Used in this way, swear words are becoming more tolerated: earlier this year an employment judge, who was hearing a case of unfair dismissal, ruled that the use of the phrase “I don’t give a f***” in a tense meeting was “commonplace” and did not carry the “shock value” that it would have done in times gone by.

In addition, words that were previously considered offensive or obscene are now often being used as punctuation, a drearily repetitive interjection in the most banal of sentences. As with many filler words (‘um’, ‘ah,’ ‘like’, ‘you know’), the user is barely conscious that they are using them; to the listener they come across as irritating interruptions, making the user sound inarticulate. In the case of filler swear words, however, some listeners might also find the repetitive, unthinking use of them quite offensive, especially if they are from an older generation that regarded these words as taboo.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that swearing is now universally accepted and tolerated, and it is advisable to try and develop some self-consciousness when it comes to deploying abusive language. It’s all about context. In some workplaces, social groups or families, swearing is the norm: words that would have made our grandparents blanche are thrown about with cheerful disinhibition and, because that is the prevailing atmosphere, offence is not taken. Even if you are not a frequent swearer yourself, you should try to adjust to this environment, make concessions, and ignore the bad language. If you find it intolerable, you should politely raise your concerns, pointing out that it is making you feel “very uncomfortable”. This complaint might introduce an element of self-consciousness into the inveterate swearers; of course, there is a risk that they will simply see you a priggish and over-sensitive.

In a work context, you need to be careful. While swearing might be part of the office culture, you should be cautious about using four-letter words when you are talking to bosses or management. In any situation where there is a clear hierarchy, people near the top of the tree feel that their position means that they should command respect. It is still quite common to find swearing indicative of disrespect and it is therefore risky to use profanities when you are interacting with someone who has a higher status.

Public figures who should command respect – politicians, judges, broadcasters etc – should avoid swearing when they are in a public forum. They are expected to adhere to higher standards than the rest of us and, as such, their lapses into demotic need to be very carefully controlled – no public figure wants to find themselves being beeped out on the nightly news. More importantly, if people in the public eye use swear words they come across as intemperate and out of control, which will damage their reputation. It is much more effective to manifest icy, well-articulated anger and disappointment when a challenging situation arises.

If you are a parent and you find that your children have picked up the swearing habit and are really running with it, now is the time to intervene. Of course, swearing will be rife amongst their peer group and the chances of excising the bad language are very small. But at least you can drum some notion of context into their heads. When they swear in front of you, pick up on it; when they’re off to visit their grandparents, warn them that older people might find their language offensive. You could even make a family project of reducing swearing: admit that you’d like to improve your language as well and introduce a swear box, where offenders pay a small cash penalty. The most important thing is to make them aware of what they are saying, to alert them to the fact that it is potentially distasteful, and to point out that the habit might well be detrimental when they move into the world of work.

In general, think before you swear and don’t allow yourself to become a swearing automaton who can barely distinguish acceptable from offensive language. Be alert to context and always assess new situations before you unleash your worst language. If you judge the situation to be antithetical to disinhibited swearing, but then lose your concentration and lapse into obscenities, apologise immediately (“please excuse my bad language”) and you will avoid giving offence.


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