As I write, a story is doing the rounds of the broadsheet and tabloid media that Prime Minister Theresa May is set to sack Chancellor Philip Hammond after the 8th June election because of disagreements that are so profound the Chancellor has been heard to swear in the midst of heated debates in the cabinet. This begs an interesting question – is swearing in professional life ever acceptable?
One reason to avoid swearing would be that, in the eyes of some, swearing makes you look, well, a bit thick. Like you can’t think what else to say so you resort to profanity. However, a study carried out in the US a few years ago made a point of comparing peoples’ vocabulary with how many swear words they knew. This involved using a test called the “Controlled Oral Word Association Test” in which volunteers are asked to say as many words beginning with certain letters of the alphabet as they can, in one minute. As well as this standard version a profanity-based version was invented for the study in which participants were asked to list as many swear words as they could in the allotted time.
There was a positive correlation between the measures such that the people who could perform most strongly on the standard version of the test, designed to assess one’s general vocabulary, also thought up the most swear words. Given that general vocabulary is an indicator of IQ, these results suggest there is more to swearing than a lack of linguistic imagination. So, actually, swearing in the office or at meetings probably should not be taken as an indication of low intelligence.
Intriguingly, a study carried out early this year asked the question of whether swearing might be linked with honesty. There are conflicting views on this. On the one hand swearing can be seen as a violation of moral and social codes suggestive of the notion that someone heard to swear is likely also to engage in other antisocial behaviours, including lying. However, on the other hand, swearing might be seen as signposting that a person is speaking in an unfiltered and spontaneous manner, associated with greater openness and honesty.
To try and settle this argument one or other way, the researchers launched an online questionnaire that was answered by 276 respondents. To measure their use of profanity they were asked to list the curse words they use most often and, also, for the curse words they liked the most. These were tallied. The survey also included a short questionnaire designed to assess honesty. This worked by asking participants to agree or disagree with statements like: “Are all your habits good and desirable ones?”. The idea of the scale is that to answer “Yes” to questions like this would be dishonest as, well, we’re all human – warts and all. They found that the more swear words people used or liked, the less often they lied on the scale. In other words, swearing in this study was associated with greater honesty. So it seems that people may perceive swearing more as an indication of unfiltered genuineness rather than a sign of moral vicissitude.
Supporting the idea of swearing being an indication of unfiltered, heart on the sleeve straight talking, consider the story of British Olympic windsurfer Bryony Shaw. In the 2008 Beijing games Bryony plucked victory from the jaws of defeat when she unexpectedly took third place and a Bronze medal. Emerging from the water still dripping wet, the BBC thrust her before a microphone, a camera and a millions-strong live television audience. Asked how she was feeling at this incredible moment, the understandably ecstatic Shaw must have felt at a loss for words. Instinctively, she reached for a register of verbal expression that could truly do justice to conveying the dizzying whirl of emotion at that climactic moment. To the consternation of the BBC producer in charge that afternoon, she unabashedly exclaimed : “I am so f***ing happy!”
Finally, there is some evidence that swearing can be persuasive. Researchers had some student volunteers watch a five minute video in which a speaker discussed the lowering of college tuition fees. Sometimes the speaker used the very mild swear word, at the beginning or end of a sentence. Other times the swear word was omitted. The volunteers in each condition were asked to rate each statement. This study found that swearing lead to more firmly expressed attitudes in favour of lowering tuition fees and swearing increased ratings of the intensity of the speech. So swearing in professional life may be a useful means of convincing others to back your opinions and suggestions.
Before long, the outcome of the 2017 General Election will be widely known, as will the fate of the sweary Mr Hammond. A scientific analysis of swearing in professional life suggests that swearing, in and of itself, should not be a sackable offence. With Mrs May’s oft repeated strength and stability she surely would not be drawn into sacking a cabinet minister for swearing in arguments.
Feldman, G., Lian, H., Kosinski, M. and Stillwell, D. (2017). Frankly, We Do Give a Damn. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550616681055
Jay, K. and Jay, T. (2015). Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth. Language Sciences, 52, 251-259.
Scherer CR, Sagarin BJ (2006). Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion. Social Influence 1, 138–146.
Telegraph (2008). Bryony Shaw prompts BBC apology by swearing after Olympic windsurfing bronze. Daily Telegraph, 20 Aug 2008. Downloaded 10th February 2012 from The Telegraph website.
Dr Richard Stephens is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University. He is Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society and his book Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad (John Murray Learning) won the BPS Book of the Year Award (Popular Science category) in 2016.