How To Handle Four-Letter Words


We’ve all been caught cursing in inappropriate situations (sorry Mom). But how do you recover from this embarrassment, and avoid it in the future? And are there situations when cursing is actually a good idea? Today we answer these questions and more.

Decide if someone really deserves it.

This week, I spoke with Prof. Timothy Jay, author of Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech, and Prof. Emrys Westacott, author of the upcoming The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits. Somewhat surprisingly, both agreed that one appropriate time to curse is when the other person is really fucking asking for it.
Says Westacott,

I’d say usually cursing is simply uncivil and to be avoided. There may be exceptions, though, where you think a person needs to have impressed on them the seriousness of their offence, or the intensity of your feelings about something they’ve done. In other words, there may be times when it is the only way to make an impression on someone — to get through to them.

Jay concurs. He says “having powerful language can be an asset in terms of asserting yourself,” and that swearing can be a way of “standing up for yourself and responding to a level of attack at that same level.” Once in high school my friend repeated a Big Secret I had told him. When I found out, I yelled “you are the world’s biggest frigging monkey!” Not effective. If you want your rage to be taken seriously (and not laughed at mercilessly for hours), sometimes you need to drop some f-bombs.

Think about your relationship.

Westacott notes that “some relationships allow cursing; friends or siblings or partners may regularly swear a blue streak at each other, and that’s just the way they communicate.” You probably have some of these relationships in your life, and you already know you can curse in them without any repercussions. But then there are other relationships, ones where swearing can really, as it were, fuck things up. One example, according to Jay, is “when you’re in a position of subservience with someone” — when they’re your boss, teacher, pastor, mayor. He explains, “I don’t think you should swear up the hierarchy.” Maybe your boss likes to drop a four-letter word every now and then, but you’re safer if you don’t reciprocate — especially in anger.

Consider the situation.

Westacott points out that cursing at the wrong time can “spoil, even wreck, a relationship.” He advocates a series of questions to determine whether this is in fact the wrong time:

How is the cursee likely to respond? Will they be devastated? Will they respond positively? Are they likely to curse back, in which case the situation (and the relationship) might go into a downward spiral.

Similarly, author and entrepreneurship expert Guy Kawasaki advises that public speakers should avoid cursing in front of a “hostile audience”:

Your audience has to be at least neutral, but even better, positively feeling towards you already. If you take a hostile audience, swearing is not going to make them happy, but if you take an audience that loves you already, dropping a few swear words is OK. It shows you’re more real, more down to earth, more human.

It’s true that a well-timed curse can humanize someone, especially if that person has a square, strait-laced image. But keep in mind that if things are already bad, cursing could make them a lot worse. If you’re willing to go there — like if, as above, your curse-ee reeeeallly deserves it — that’s fine. But be aware that swearing can turn a tense situation into an explosive one.

If you screw up, apologize — but only if you screw up royally.

We’ve all been in the position of having cursed when it clearly wasn’t appropriate. I still burn with shame from the time that I, at eight, asked my dad why “fleas like to bite you, but mosquitoes don’t give a damn” (I was just quoting Gone With the Wind, albeit bizarrely out of context). Jay says in these situations, “if people are visibly upset or shocked, a swift and to-the-point apology” is a good idea. Westacott offers some advice for making such an apology:

I’d say they should be as straightforward as possible. Often, we start to apologize but then bury the apology in a lot of explanation. And the explanation is really an attempt to excuse ourselves. And the subtext of the excuse is that the person we cursed really deserved what they got.

So make your apology quick and sincere. But if your audience seems willing to let it slide — if your profane moment is more painfully awkward than downright offensive — you might just draw attention to it by saying sorry. Let it go and don’t make the same mistake again.

Swearing in the car might be good for you.

Jay says that swearing can function as “a replacement for physical aggression,” and it can also be “cathartic.” He explains that calling someone an asshole or a motherfucker might be a good way to let off steam in traffic without honking or chewing your fingers off in frustration. Similarly, any time you’re all by yourself and really need to relieve pent-up rage, swearing might be a good, risk-free way to do so.

Your parents might swear, and you have to deal with it.

You know that moment when your parents decide, seemingly overnight, that you’re old enough to curse in front of? And now they’re all talking about “this fucking TV” when they used to send you to your room for swearing? Yeah, that shit is weird. But Jay points out that lots of parents swear throughout their kids’ childhoods — most parents, he says, have rules about swearing, but two-thirds break them themselves. If they weren’t breaking them in front of you, though, their sudden pottymouths may take some getting used to. Jay says that as parents get older, they sometimes “feel freer to release their emotions than before,” and it’s likely the “newness” of this that freaks out adult kids. If you just accept it without comment, it will probably come to seem normal. But you shouldn’t necessarily assume you too can swear with impunity. If you haven’t been cursing in front of them habitually, they might be just as shocked by your profanity as you were by theirs.

If you’re bothered by cursing, your own or other people’s, Jay offers some questions to ask yourself: “Why is someone doing this? Why did I do it?” If you can get at the reasons behind cursing, you may be able to uncover an underlying anger that needs to be resolved. Or you may just realize that getting cut off in traffic really fucking sucks.

Need help with a sticky social situation? Email us! We’ll sweep your social minefield!

For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory Of Speech
The Virtues Of Our Vices: A Modest Defense Of Gossip, Rudeness, And Other Bad Habits

Image by Steve Dressler.

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