Us mothers (who tend to curse a lot) are plagued with the muddle of swearing. Constantly asking ourselves the same questions over and over again. Is swearing harmful? Should children be allowed to swear? Is my swearing getting worse?
This morning I dropped my cup of coffee on the kitchen floor. I guess my motor skills are not that impressive at 7.00 am. And so I did the inevitable. I said “shit” in front of my three year old daughter. She immediately laughed and retaliated with a “shit” back. “Well now I’m in trouble”- I thought. But what are the implications of this fuck up? Two options came to mind. The first option would be correcting her every time she says it, No Cali, it’s not “shit” it’s “chips”. The second option would be to not do anything, it’s too late now anyway. Well, I decided to go with my first option, correct her like there’s no tomorrow. The correcting thing does work. I mean she is aware that she shouldn’t say that word because it is very ugly. So now if I hear her say it, she’ll laugh and look very naughty, knowing she shouldn’t be doing it.
This got me thinking. Is swearing really that problematic or harmful? Researchers have been very shy about studying swearing. Courts of justice usually presume harm from speech in cases involving discrimination or sexual harassment. The original justification of our use of use of expletives was predicted on an unfounded assumption that speech can deprave or corrupt children, but I can’t seem to find any social-science data (if there is any) demonstrating that a word in and of itself causes harm. A more important issue is the manner in which harm has been defined- harm is most commonly shaped in terms of standards and sensibilities like religion or sexual practices. Seldom are there attempts to quantify harm in terms of objectively measurable symptoms (think of sleeping disorders or anxiety). I am sure that psychological scientists could make a systematic effort to establish behavioral outcomes of swearing.
Basically, swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Jay & Janschewitz’s work (2008) suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic. They recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and claimed they rarely witnessed any irregularities or negative consequences. They never saw public swearing lead to physical violence. See most public uses of taboo words are not in anger, they are innocuous and sometimes even produce positive consequences (e.g it can evoke humor). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any descriptive data on swearing in private settings, so more work needs to be done in that area.
Thus, instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information can be gathered by asking what communication goals swearing achieves. See swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or in the worst case scenario as a substitute for physical aggression. A recent study Stephens et al. (2009) show that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance. This finding suggests swearing has a cathartic effect, which many of us may have personally experienced in frustration or in response to pain. Despite this empirical evidence, the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media.
And yet my main question prevails: Is it bad for children to hear or say swear words?
I think the harm question for adult swearing applies to issues such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. But when children enter the picture, insulting language becomes a problem for parents and a basis for censorship in media and educational settings. Considering the omnipresence of this problem, I find it quite interesting that psychology textbooks do not address the emergence of this behavior in the context of development or language learning. At least in none of the textbooks that I have at home.
Us parents often wonder if this behavior is normal and how we should respond to it. Jay & Janschewitz’s data (2008) showed that swearing emerges by age two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 and 12. We have to yet determine what children know about the meanings of the words they use.
No one knows exactly how children learn swear words, although this is an inevitable part of language learning, and it begins early in life. Whether or not children (and adults) swear, we know that they do acquire a contextually-bound swearing protocol- the “who, what, where and when” of swearing. This so-called etiquette determines the thin red line between amusing and insulting and needs to be examined further.
Considering that the consequences of children’s exposure to swear words are frequently cited as the basis for censorship, psychological scientists should make an effort to describe the normal course of development of a child’s swearing glossary and etiquette. I can’t help but wonder…Is it important to attempt to censor children from language they already know? But more importantly, I can’t help but wonder whether swearing has become more frequent in recent years?
This is a common question, apparently, and it’s a tough one to answer I reckon, because I couldn’t seem to find a reliable baseline frequency data prior to 1970 for comparison purposes. One thing is definitely true. We are exposed to more forms of swearing since the inception of satellite radio, cable t.v, and of course, the internet. But, that does not necessarily mean the average person is swearing more frequently.
Jay & Janschewitz (2008) indicate that the most frequently recorded taboo words have remained fairly stable over the past 30 years. The common Anglo-Saxon words we say are hundreds of years old, and most of the historically unpleasant sexual references are still at the top of the offensiveness list; they haven’t been toppled by modern slang.
Therefore, the data examined in the study did not lead to any worrying conclusions that our culture is getting “worse” when it comes to swearing. When this question arises, we also frequently fail to acknowledge the impact of recent laws that penalize offensive language, such as sexual harassment and discrimination laws, to name a couple.
Our society has reached a point where cursing is so common that euphemisms actually have a greater impact. A term applicable to Oedipus, for example, is used, as often as not, affectionately (guessed it?), while the mild “jackass” is always an insult.
This trend seems to have been reinforced by the moderation of legal and self-censorship. Because basically, context matters. There is something absurd in the dialogue of 1950s movies when some enraged character can think of no harsher word than “damn”. Flash forward to the dialogue of Scarface in 1983 and you’ll see that it is fully appropriate to the characters and circumstances. Only if Elsa from Frozen is given the same vocabulary as The Dude in The Big Lebowski will I object to the premise that context matters- and then only on artistic grounds.
To conclude, it is important to note that when it comes to swearing context matters. The same swear word can be used as an insult, an exclamation of surprise, or as an expression of pleasure in the pangs of passion. As a sociologist who has read a lot on many aspects of communication, I was surprised to find that there was little research on the subject, and said to myself, “Well, shit! Another missed research opportunity”.
At the end of the day, swear words lack subtlety and they crowd out a richer glossary full with nuanced meanings. My only real opinion is that too much reliance on swear words encourages simplistic thought. Instead of focusing on what we say in front of our kids let’s focus on making them self-aware. Teach them about self-awareness and you’ll have children that pick up easier on social and cultural cues thereby understanding when it is and it is not appropriate to exhibit certain behaviors, including swearing.
My next article will delve into the importance of self-awareness in children. So stick around.. Till soon!
Jay, T.B. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 153–161.
Jay, T.B., & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research: Language, Behavior, Culture, 4, 267-288.
Picture courtesy of linkbeef.com