A Strategic Guide to Swearing

The professional benefits of using curse words

Marco Goran

In 2013, Martin Scorsese’s darkly comic depiction of white-collar crime and hedonism, The Wolf of Wall Street, claimed the title for most uses of fuck ever in a Hollywood feature film. Over the course of three hours, the film’s characters utter the word and its derivatives more than 500 times. They deploy it as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an interjection, and an infix (that’s an affix inserted inside a word—as in, absofuckinglutely). They swear in the company of friends, colleagues, and adversaries, in moments of anger, excitement, and awe.

If research is any guide, this surfeit is not the result of a limited vocabulary or a lack of imagination. Psycholinguists have remarked that “taboo words communicate emotional information more effectively than non-taboo words” and allow us to vent anger without getting physical [1]. Which might explain why we’re better at swearing when we’re fired up. After playing violent video games for 10 minutes, participants in one study now under peer review were able to write down significantly more swear words than those who had played a (presumably less exhilarating) golf video game [2]. Other studies point to further benefits of well-timed profanity. For one thing, cursing appears to help you endure pain. When undergraduates repeated a strong swear word, they were able to keep a hand submerged in icy water about 40 seconds longer, on average, than when they repeated a neutral word. They also rated their pain as less intense [3]. Don’t toss your Tylenol just yet, though: A follow-up study noted that people who swear habitually experience less relief [4]. Research out of New Zealand suggests social benefits to swearing. The liberal use of four-letter words allowed factory workers there to build solidarity and to bond over shared frustrations [5]. Researchers found similar effects in office settings, where “witty uses of coarse, casual profanity” boosted morale and lowered stress among low-level workers [6]. That said, if you prefer scaling the corporate ladder to making friends, you may want to avoid colorful language. In one experiment, participants said they would perceive a co-worker who swore in a formal meeting to be incompetent [7].Whether or not cursing is completely professional, it can be persuasive. Fictitious perpetrator and victim testimonies peppered with profanity were rated as more believable than those without curse words, one study found [8]. Similarly, political speeches that included a mild expletive (damn) swayed already sympathetic listeners more than those without obscenity, perhaps because they were thought to demonstrate passion. (Cursing had the opposite effect on skeptical audiences, who found it crass and off-putting.) [9] In short: Swear, and swear often! But not if you want a promotion. Or if you’re prone to injury. Unless you’re trying to prove a frigging point.

[1] Jay and Janschewitz, “Filling the Emotion Gap in Linguistic Theory” (Theoretical Linguistics, Oct. 2007)

[2] Zile and Stephens, “Swearing as Emotional Language” (presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in Birmingham, England, 2014)

[3] Stephens et al., “Swearing as a Response to Pain” (NeuroReport, Aug. 2009)

[4] Stephens and Umland, “Swearing as a Response to Pain: Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency” (The Journal of Pain, Dec. 2011)

[5] Daly et al., “Expletives as Solidarity Signals in FTAs on the Factory Floor” (Journal of Pragmatics, May 2004)

[6] Baruch and Jenkins, “Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture” (Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, Oct. 2007)

[7] Johnson and Lewis, “Perceptions of Swearing in the Work Setting” (Communication Reports, July 2010)

[8] Rassin and Van Der Heijden, “Appearing Credible? Swearing Helps!” (Psychology, Crime & Law, June 2005)

[9] Scherer and Sagarin, “Indecent Influence” (Social Influence, June 2006)