Thursday, December 12, 2019
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In conversations, students sure do curse a lot

“In this generation of adolescent students, cursing is extremely common in conversations,” writes Megan Nguyen, a reporter for the ArapahoeXtra, the student newspaper at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. “Anybody could stroll down the hallway of a school or across a campus and a stream of swearing will spout out.”

She wonders, Is cursing really effective, given that the shock value of using curse words has sort of worn off on current students, and even on others in society, due to overuse?

She answers: Curse words “no longer have a powerful effect,” because “nobody actually thinks about the depth of what they are saying … as words are thrown around carelessly.”

But new research from the US, Hong Kong, the UK, and the Netherlands suggests that we do give a damn, after all. A team of researchers has found that people who curse frequently are being more honest, so maybe we should pay closer attention to those words, even as students. Their research is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

via press release

It’s long been associated with anger and coarseness, but profanity can have another, more positive connotation. Psychologists have learned that people who frequently curse are being more honest. Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, the US, and Hong Kong report that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated with lying and deception.

Profanity is obscene language which, in some social settings is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. It often refers to language that contains sexual references, blasphemy, or other vulgar terms. It’s usually related to the expression of emotions such as anger, frustration, or surprise. But profanity can also be used to entertain and win over audiences.

There are conflicting attitudes to profanity and its social impact has changed over the decades. In 1939, Clark Gable uttering the memorable line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the film Gone with the Wind, was enough to land the producers a $5,000 fine. Nowadays our movies, TV shows, and books are peppered with profane words and, for the most part, we are more tolerant of them.

As dishonesty and profanity are both considered deviant, they are often viewed as evidence of low moral standards. On the other hand, profanity can be positively associated with honesty. It is often used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity. The researchers cite the example of then President-elect Donald Trump who used swear words in some of his speeches while campaigning in last year’s US election and was considered, by some, to be more genuine than his rivals.

Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, says: “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views.”

The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires which included interactions with social media users.

In the first questionnaire, 276 participants were asked to list their most commonly used and favorite swear words. They were also asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took part in a lie test to determine whether they were being truthful or simply responding in the way they thought was socially acceptable. Those who wrote down a higher number of curse words were less likely to be lying.

A second survey involved collecting data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of swear words in their online social interactions. The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me.”

The Facebook users were recruited from across the United States and their responses highlight the differing views to profanity that exist between different geographical areas. For example, those in the northeastern states (such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York) were more likely to swear whereas people were less likely to swear in the southern states (South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi).

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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