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The problem with swearing.

No. It’s not what you might be thinking.

Earlier today, I posted a fun meme that had a “swear” jar and a “talking about my dog” jar for coins, reflecting an old idea that when we swear or when we talk about topics we weren’t asked about, we should drop a coin in the jar to remind ourselves to not do that.

Oh, you missed it? Well, here’s the link.

But to my point, the words we use aren’t the only issue, especially with swearing.

Why?

Because not everyone thinks the same way about specific words. Each language has some words that are considered naughty or inappropriate in polite society, but there may be disagreement in any one country/culture or even different countries that use much the same language.

In the U.S., the word “bloody” means covered in blood; it’s not a nasty, dirty swear word.

But in the UK, it has been one of the worst of the worst, even though apparently that may be changing.

Here in the U.S., the “F” word is about as ugly as we can get, although even that word seems to be creeping into more polite conversations.

So if it’s not the specific word that gets so many of us riled up, what is it?

The tone of voice we use along with the words.

Most of us know the approximate percentages of beliefs we have with words used by others in what’s known as a “mixed message,” one that just doesn’t “add up.” Absent true clarity, our belief in the message will come from the words we hear about 10% of the time, the tone of voice about 30% of the time, and the nonverbal/physical gestures 60% of the time.

So while the words matter, they may not be the most important part if they don’t align with the tone of voice; in that case, we’ll believe the tone is sending the real message.

Saying “Sure, that will be fun” with a harsh voice likely won’t fill a listener with good feelings; they’ll probably believe just the opposite. Even a little kid might not believe we mean it if our voice doesn’t sound “right.”

Right?

I realized that for myself – even when no one else hears me except for my poor little dog, Gibbs – that when I swear, my tone of voice reflects the anger/upset in whatever situation is driving the need to swear.

And the more I repeat some word(s), the more upset I get. My voice gets stronger, harsher, scarier, especially to Gibbs, my rescued dog who clearly has PTSD from his early years and hides in his crate and shakes when hears my voice get sharp.

And who’s getting me all upset?

I AM.

No one else.

It’s taken me a while to realize that although a situation may be difficult, swearing doesn’t help at all. It blinds me to seeing solutions, to seeing if the situation is even all that difficult, to seeing how to turn it around.

I don’t like getting/being out of control at all, so when I’m tempted to use a swear word, I now (mostly) take a deep breath and make a conscious effort to relax.

I swear I’m working on this, friends. 😊

All in all, I think Gibbs would agree that our household is a far happier place when I do that.

What has your experience been with swear words, friends? Do they help? Hurt?

Susan Rooks
Susan Rookshttps://grammargoddess.com/
With 25 years’ experience as an international speaker and workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication to help business professionals enhance their communication skills. She creates and leads three-hour “Brush Up on Your Skills” workshops in three main areas: American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills. And recently she created and began leading introductory workshops to help business pros maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce free of charge. As a copyeditor (and editor of nonfiction only), Susan has worked on projects ranging from blogs to award-winning children’s books to best-selling business books to corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented and free from grammatical errors. From the beginning, Susan’s only goal was to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Susan, great stuff, I swear you have a way with words. Here’s a funny anecdote: Years ago a teacher was commenting on the English language. She said it’s the only language in which there’s no expression with two positives to make a negative. One of her students yelled, “Yeah, right!” So much for that.

    Thanks for this. Very enjoyable.

    BE

  2. As a non-native English speaker I feel kind of sorry for you, Susan.

    As English is the huge contributor to the international entertainment market, your swearwords are exported worldwide. And unlike colorful native expressions, swearing in a foreign language always feels less crass. Embarrassing, yes, if one uses a word without quite knowing neither what it refers to, nor how potent it is to the natives, but rarely one that causes our parents to show up with regret-tasting Orange Dial. So they simply don’t evoke the same braking-the-rule emotions as a good native #@!!.

    I have on more than one occasion had to tell my otherwise well spoken guests that effing in US is not going to earn them any brownie points, while they can easily get away with it back in the old country. But NOBODY would say the equivalent in the native language except in its original context.

    Isn’t it interesting how the chickens come home to roost?

    • I love the idea of exporting language, Charlotte – I hadn’t thought of that before! (And your timing is impeccable, as I was just watching “Derry Girls” the other day, where they were talking about Pulp Fiction and everything was “MFer this” and “MFer that”). I quite agree that it feels less crass swearing in a foreign language. It’s easier to say something of feeling when no one else knows what you’re saying, so they can’t judge you for crassness.

  3. Ah, Susan… I have the mouth of a sailor. And it’s not limited to any language; no, in fact, English, German, French, and Spanish all pop up when my mouth starts making those (&@#[email protected]*#$&! symbols. Growing up, our vocabulary was closely monitored (I once got my mouth washed out with soap for saying “butthead”… and it wasn’t a nice scent, but rather the orange Dial soap that tastes like regret), so I suppose once I moved out, my vocabulary rebelled along with the rest of me. I love swearing for the passion and the sounds these words make- starting quietly, like an “f” or “sh”; ending with a hard “k” or “t”, which can explode with the rest of my temper. It wasn’t until we adopted Norman that I remembered how sensitive animals are to the inflection and tone of your voice; something I seemingly forgot when I was the only one I needed to worry about. (And who are we but animals at our core?)

    When it comes to language and feelings, it’s not all about us… so I’m breathing with you in solidarity in crowds, though if I’m home alone and stub my toe… well, you’ll know what follows.

    • OMG, Megan, I may never stop laughing! Thank you so much for that wonderful comment!

      I never got my mouth washed out like that; I can’t even imagine how awful it was. Blech.

      But yes. Animals do certainly learn certain words like supper, walk, out — and whatever else is fun for them. But it’s the inflection when we swear that really does a number of some, especially my little Gibbs with the PTSD anyway.

      And yeah. I know what happens when I’m home alone …

      Thanks a million, Megan!

  4. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your article with us. You make so many good points; such as the different meanings that persons attach to the words we use and that, in fact, the tone with which words are expressed may imply more than the words themselves. I’m glad to say that the habit of using words of “that” nature has fallen away from me, largely because the old “me” that would have used them occasionally has by and large gone AWOL.
    I don’t pretend to be a Bible scholar–in fact, I don’t even own one; but I do believe it’s truth that “by our words we will be justified or condemned.” To me, words–as Charles F. Haanel states in “The Master Key System” are but the “cloaks of thought.” The point I’m trying to make is that the quality of our life depends on the nature and quality of our thoughts and words. “Good” words are reflective of good thoughts, which equals a good life.
    Thanks again for your great article!

    • And thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment, Art! I very much appreciate your thoughts here.

      Of course, there is a place where words matter 100%, and that’s in writing, right? Yes, we can use emojis to highlight or soften what may seem harsh, but in the end, it’s the word themselves that matter. And yes, by our words we shall be judged, fairly or not.

      Thank you!

  5. Dear Susan,

    What a fascinating topic. Having lived in the Netherlands, there is a totally different attitude to ‘naughty’ words and swear words.

    I agree, the use of profanity is as it is said in England, ‘the last resort of an exhausted mind’.

    ‘Bloody’ is the UK is oft used, but the derivative not known by many. The origin comes from ‘By our Lady’ – ‘Mother Mary.

    The f-word is more and more used, especially on TV. It irritates me. They could at least use ‘effing’ – which is used occasionally. As a bit old fashioned and etiquette – aware, I find it shocking to hear a woman use the f-word.

    One word which really is taboo is the c-word, although was used in the film series ‘Peaky Blinder’ where every fifth word was ‘f’ and once the c-word was used.

    In the Netherlands there are equivalent words with a similar meaning, but are used in phrases. There is one referring to a desk driving bureaucrat, which in polite English, an ant -effer.
    The equivalent of the c-word, begins with a k, and is even used referred to the weather! However, in exceedingly polite society, swear words are not used as much. The Dutch don’t relate to having ‘bad words’. When in the Netherlands the s**t word is normal and used to describe everything.

    Swearing does nothing for anyone. When angry, I agree. A few deep breaths will help.

    Thank you Susan

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