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Swearing for the Health of It

by | Mar 7, 2018

Mark Twain, the great American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, liked to use profanity. One day, so the story goes, his wife had grown weary of his swearing and told him that anyone can swear and that it’s commonplace and not befitting a gentleman such as himself. He challenged her and said, “Okay, if anyone can swear, let’s hear you do it.”

So she rattled off some choice words, but he just shook his head and said, “You got the words right, but you don’t know the tune.”

The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way.
– Mark Twain

Dr. Emma Byrne has written a book entitled “Swearing Is Good For You.”

She says, “Bad words appear in every language and take many forms. Some are impious, copulatory or excretory; others are slurs of one sort or another. Most of us were raised to think of cursing as a vice to be cured. But there’s a reason that swearing is such a universal practice, across time and place. It actually has many benefits.”

She says that swearing has a power that other words lack. For example, curse words help us handle pain. Richard Stephens is a psychologist at Keele University in England. He and his team of researchers have studied this effect for years. They found that people can keep their hands submerged in ice water for 50% longer when they swear compared to when they used a neutral word. Participants were encouraged to use the curse words they might use if they dropped a hammer on their thumb.

Apparently, stronger language makes us stronger. The volunteers reported that the water felt less cold when they swore.

Let us swear while we may, for in heaven it will not be allowed.
– Mark Twain

Swearing also has this effect across personality types. It helps both those who freely express their displeasure (anger-out people, as psychologists call them) and those who tend to contain it (anger-in people).

In 2011, Dr. Stephens conducted a version of his ice water experiment in which he first asked people to rate how likely they were to swear when they were angry. He found that swearing eased the pain equally well for everyone, whether they were inclined to swear or not.

It is known that swearing does something to our physiology. When you hear or use curse words, your heart rate quickens, your palms become sweaty, and your emotional state intensifies. Though researchers don’t really know the mechanism by which swearing helps, it seems to work through our emotions, heightening confidence, increasing aggression, and making us more resilient.

Profanity is more necessary to me than is immunity from colds.
– Mark Twain

Dr. Stephen has also found that not just any swear words will do. They need to be genuine.

Euphemisms like “fudge” and “sugar” and “darn” don’t work. They seem to provide no benefit to easing pain.

Swearing can also improve our capability at physically demanding activities. A study published recently in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise showed that swearing increased strength and stamina. 52 volunteers squeezed a measuring device as hard as they could for two minutes. Those who were asked to swear during this task exerted more force for longer.

Swearing can relieve social pain, like feelings of being rejected or excluded. In 2012, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia conducted an experiment. They asked 70 volunteers, slightly over half male, to remember an experience where they were excluded from a group or included in a group. They found that swearing after being made to recall a hurtful experience reduced the pain associated with the memory. Here, swearing acts like an analgesic.

There is also research to suggest that swearing can be valuable in social bonding.  We tend to swear among those we trust. And in some situations, it can even help to create trust. Even when used aggressively, swearing can be beneficial. It can be a signal that a situation is about to escalate and a warning to give someone space before violence occurs.

Vulgarity is like a fine wine: it should only be uncorked on a special occasion, and then only shared with the right group of people.
James Rozoff

The problem is that curse words have built-in shock value, and without the shock, there is no emotional impact. As Dr. Byrne reminds us, “Swearing is powerful stuff. A little goes a long way.” Yes. Dammit!

(Post provided by MDB Communications, a Capitol Communicator sponsor.)

About the Author

MDB Communications

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