Ever let an F-bomb slip in front of your boss and immediately feel mortified about how they’re now perceiving you? Do they think you’re crass? Out of control? Rude? Unprofessional? Perhaps they have some other reaction that still paints you in an unflattering light? As someone who curses quite a bit around my friends but rarely (purposely, at least) in front of those not within that inner circle, I experience this anxiety spiral every now and then because I’m, in fact, not a robot, and sometimes I use parts of my vocabulary among company not meant to hear it. It’s not that I’m ashamed to be someone who uses curse words, but when I say one of those four-letter terms in certain settings, the result feels like showing up to a black-tie event in a Halloween getup, having confused it for a costume party: embarrassing and kind of cringeworthy for everyone around.
Do people really care, though? According to linguistic experts, it really depends context. “Swearing is a complex human behavior, one very dependent on contextual variables: who, what, where, when, why,” says psychologist Timothy Jay, PhD, a world-renowned cursing expert (yes, really). Linguist Kirk Hazen, PhD agrees: “Change a variable, and you change perception of swearing. Any curse word can be used for camaraderie, for insult, or for intensification,” he says. “[How it’s perceived] all depends on who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening.”
The experts say several demographics factor in—including gender, race, and socioeconomic status—but for reasons that skew discriminatory and offensively generalized. Take the case for perception of cursing as it relates to gender: “Swearing is part of a masculinity script,” Dr. Jay says. “So women can be looked down upon, whereas men are just being men.” The race piece, adds Michael Adams, author of In Praise of Profanity, is mostly rooted in racism. He points out that while Donald Trump used public profanity in 2016 to seem relatable to certain demographics, it’s unlikely Barack Obama could have done so to the same effect. And according to Dr. Hazen, those of lower socio-economic status generally regard using curse words as more acceptable than those of upper classes. “In working-class neighborhoods, toughness, including verbal toughness, is highly valued, and being able to joust with words is crucial,” he says. Cursing might also be seen as a socially acceptable affront to power and authority in lower socio-economic demographics, adds Dr. Jay.
“The healthiest use of profanity is in constructing social relationships in order to identify as belonging together in some way.” —Michael Adams, author of In Praise of Profanity
Beyond all of these demographic variables, the specific relationship among the people involved in the exchange matters. Adams says profanity is a sort of slang, and therefore its use can signify your belonging to a group (e.g., me with my girlfriends or Donald Trump with his supporters). “Maybe the healthiest and the almost inevitable use of profanity is in constructing social relationships, either one-on-one relationships or in groups that share the same language tendencies, in order to identify themselves as belonging together in some way,” he says. It can also signify or engender trust: If you curse in conversation with your co-worker, for example, that co-worker is likely to see it as a sign of intimacy. It’s as if, Adams says, you’re signaling to them you know they won’t tell on you for your bad behavior. Plus, research shows swearing correlates to honesty, so calling upon your favorite ways to be profane can actually communicate some subliminal goodwill.
Sometimes, however, cursing is a power move. “If you’re sure that you’re better than everybody else—if you see yourself in the case of exceptionalism—you may try to project that idea by saying things that other people are unable to say,” Adams says, calling upon an example of Dick Cheney telling Senator Patrick Leahy to “go f**k himself’ back in 2010, which is something Adams says not just anyone could get away with saying to a senator. “Where swearing is a mark of power—e.g., military, medical practice, courtroom or boardroom—it would be a mark of authority and come off as professional,” adds Dr. Jay, who caveats that using curse words at work is really only effective in certain circumstances. “Consider that organizations are hierarchical…bosses can swear, peons cannot,” says Dr. Jay. Of course, workplace culture matters, too.
In practice, it can also send mixed signals regarding your intelligence. On the one hand, research conducted by Dr. Jay revealed that those who use curse words tend to have higher IQs than those who do not. “Really smart people, the argument would go, are constantly verbally testing the boundaries and using everything available to them to express themselves, whereas people of less intelligence might have a much smaller repertoire of vocabulary, or would be less secure about whether they could get away with swearing in a particular public situation,” Adams explains. On the other hand, this doesn’t always mean you’re perceived as being smarter when you cuss—because, again, context is key.
All of these variables seem overwhelming to compute? Well, Adams reassures me that most of us know how to subconsciously take them into account pre-swear so as to refrain from when invoking them in inappropriate situations. And if you’ve accidentally let one slip in a situation in which you’re not sure how you’ll be perceived as a result, Adams says to rest easy in the knowledge that cursing is becoming less taboo on the whole. “Profanity is present in a lot more of our lives than it used to be,” he says. “We’re in the golden age of profanity because we’re using it a lot and we’re using it expressively, and we’re taking it to the limit that we can without erasing the taboo that makes it perhaps the ultimate expressive speech.” F**k yeah.
Forget for a second about how you’re perceived—here’s how to cope when you perceive someone else as being a bad listener. Plus, find out which three words are kneecapping your ability to communicate fully.