“He hasn’t slept in probably uh seven days” was the only phrase of hip-hop artist Baby Keem’s song “naked freestyle” my speaker system was able to output before my parents turned it off. Admittedly, I should have known the next words, namely “these hoes,” would have gone over badly with them, considering their general distaste for vulgarity.
Interestingly enough, as pervasive as expletives are within modern music, and within life in general, the distaste that my parents hold does not exist within a vacuum. Swear words are held as a persistent taboo throughout daily life, and social customs throughout the world look down upon swearing. Unknown to many people, though, is that there are clear psychological, physiological and sociological benefits to using curse words properly. Furthermore, these effects are representative of the greater power of breaking “taboo.”
Putting the taboo aside, multiple studies have shown that the surface-level benefits of curse words are many. One 2015 study showed that the better use of curse words was related to the education level and vocabulary of the speaker. The idea that people who swear do so because they lack the ability to find the right, non-taboo word to use was proven a myth, and, generally, people who swear more actually tend to be more fluent in their language than people who do not.
Aside from the connection between curse words and language fluency, there exists a clear connection between cursing and pain tolerance. In terms of physical pain, it is found that swearing can help alleviate and distract people from pain. The cognitive process of swearing allows people to perceive harmful stimuli as being less painful because of the attention the process requires. A sports psychology study also found that swearing can increase performance in strength-related and physical tasks.
While the psychological and physiological benefits to swearing are numerous, a certain amount of attention should be paid with respect to the negative consequences it can have. Gone unchecked, simple cursing can undergo an ugly transition into what University of Michigan sociology professor Fatma Göçek called in a Michigan Daily interview “verbal violence.”
According to Göçek, “verbal violence” can undermine the inherent respect and empathy during social interaction needed in order to sustain a healthy society. Violence begets more violence, which is a vicious negative feedback loop that can be detrimental to society.
This is where a discernment needs to be made in order to emphasize the positive effects of swear words. Not all taboo words are non-harmful. For example, slurs and stereotypical terms have been used throughout much of human history in order to hurt and oppress marginalized groups.
There is a clear difference between copulatory and excretory swearing and divisive, harmful speech. The use of the former can come with many positive effects, while the latter has the capacity to cause great harm. There is also a difference between swearing at someone and swearing with someone.
Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the speaker to determine what swear words to use and when to use them. Using swear words at the right time and not with a wanton mouth can actually prove you to be more aware and educated to the person you are speaking to.
When one can distinguish between the proper use of swear words and the improper use of swear words, it can help you connect with people at levels that would have otherwise been impossible to reach. When someone breaks a social norm in front of another person, they break down an invisible barrier. Shattering the linguistic norm of politeness has been shown to prove honesty and authenticity to the person one is speaking with.
When a societal norm is broken down, especially in scenarios where conformity is omnipresent, it gives a covert prestige to the speaker — that is, a connection between speaker and audience due to the words they choose to use. When asked how she would feel if a job interviewer cursed in front of her, LSA freshman Elizabeth Harrington details how she would feel more comfortable, saying she “would relax and feel like the workplace had a more casual environment.”
The thing is, using swear words shows an inherent honesty. One 2017 study found a clear positive correlation between honesty and the use of expletives. A certain authenticity is needed in order to break down societal norms, and when that authenticity is shared with people, it can make them feel more human. When a professor curses in their lecture, it, in the words of LSA Freshman Meredith Knight, “humanizes the information” and shows that “the professor respects us as humans before students.”
At the end of the day, we are all real people. We are not the societal standards that we feel pressured by and we are also not the demonization we might receive for breaking those standards. While societal expectations might exist for a good reason, the importance of people supersedes the importance of the expectations.
Even though the taboo of swear words is not a global issue or a cause that requires global campaigning against, the issue is representative of the general human state. If we can break down the societal standards that bind us, even in little ways such as “expanding” our public vocabulary, we can move one step closer to a world that’s a little more honest and a little more authentic. The true power of swear words comes from their ability to bring us, even if a little bit, closer as people. That’s the fucking point.
Zhane Yamin is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.