Crap. Merde. Ibn sharmoota.* Swear words exist in most cultures (Japan is a notable exception), and many of us use them so casually and so frequently that by the time children start school, they have, according to one count, acquired a profanity bank of 30 to 40 words. (My own seven-year-old loves to whisper “fricking” in a friend’s ear, making them both giggle guiltily. My only defence is that he certainly didn’t get that one from me…)
Since even words like “fuck” are used conversationally, at least in the US and UK, surely they’ve lost the power to trigger a negative response in a listener—especially as far as younger adults are concerned? Not according to a new paper published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. Melanie DeFrank and Patricia Kahlbaugh, at Southern Connecticut State University, found that teenagers who swear casually were judged by college students as being less intelligent and less trustworthy.
DeFrank and Kahlbaugh recruited 138 students, including 101 women. The participants first completed a questionnaire asking them to rate the offensiveness of 10 swear words. (The words in order of most to least offensive, according to the participants’ ratings, were: bitch, fuck, bastard, shit, ass, jerk, screw, butt, crap and dang.) The participants also estimated how often they used and heard these kinds of words. While 17 percent said they used between zero and five daily, just over 20 percent reported using more than 21 every day. Thirteen percent said they heard between zero and five, but 20 percent reported hearing more than 21 daily.
Next the participants read two purported conversations between two 15-year-olds. They were asked to imagine that they were overhearing these conversations, and in each case, they had to rate the first speaker on overall impression, intelligence, trustworthiness, sociability, politeness and likability.
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The dialogues were presented as being either between two males, two females, or a male and a female. Also, either one or both speakers used swear words from the list, or neither of them did. In all other respects, the conversations were exactly the same.
Here is an extract from a female-female conversation in which both parties swore:
Jessica: “Hey, what’s up?”
Ashley: “Hey, how are you?”
Jessica: “Good. Just about to head to class. Can’t be late. You know how he is. He’ll bitch.”
Ashley: “I hate that shit. You can’t even be a second late before they get on to you about it.”
Jessica: “I know, and they give us so much work. I already have so much shit to do.”
Ashley: “Me too. It’s not even funny. I have like three fucking tests coming up in the same week.”
DeFrank and Kahlbaugh found that, overall, as well as being judged to be less intelligent and less trustworthy, both males and females who swore were considered to be less likeable, more offensive and more aggressive. Also, speakers (male or female) who swore during a mixed-gender conversation were rated as being less sociable. And males who used swear words in conversation with females were rated as being more offensive.
This was despite the fact that just under half of the participants said that they did not consider the swearing version of the dialogue to be “profane." Even the swear words that the students perceived to be most offensive—bitch and fuck—they still only rated midway on the offensiveness scale, on average, and some students rated them as completely inoffensive. “Despite people not considering the… language offensive, they are still affected by it and use it to judge others, suggesting a subliminal effect,” DeFrank and Kahlbaugh write.
It’s perhaps worth stressing that findings from a group of college students in Connecticut who thought they were judging teenage strangers don’t necessarily apply generally. But since first impressions do matter—and can last—perhaps we should all be more careful about casual swearing.
Over time, “people have become more desensitized to certain swears and even expect them at times,” the researchers note. “Having said that, there is still a language bias. Word choices matter, even when we think they do not or when we think they should not.”
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