Even now, in my late 20s, my mum will still give me a look when I swear in front of her that unequivocally says: hey you, you’ve crossed the line. And while I’m not proud to admit it, these four-letter words do tend to make regular appearances in my vocabulary, but I’d like to think I know how to read a room – most of the time.
Still, the odd profanity does occasionally slip through, like that scene in Love Actually when Natalie tells David: “I did have an awful premonition I was going to f–k up on my first day.” Sound familiar? Usually what comes next, as it did for Natalie, is a downwards shame-spiral, and you’re left wondering to yourself: Hm, did I f–k up just then???
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I would like to tell you now that having looked at the research, people don’t give a f–k about your language… but it is simply untrue. You – I mean, we – are definitely being judged.
However, according to linguistic experts, it all comes down to the context – who, what, where, when and why. In other words, swearing in front of your mates is likely to be a totally different ball game – with different rules – to dropping an f-bomb in front of your mum or your boss.
Linguist Kirk Hazen tells well+good that how a swear word is perceived “all depends on who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening”. He then adds: “Change a variable, and you change perception of swearing. Any curse word can be used for camaraderie, for insult, or for intensification.” Demographics also factor in, including gender, race, and socioeconomic status. For example, given swearing is traditionally considered to be ‘masculine’, women are more likely to be judged than men.
It also depends on the relationship at-hand, is it a one-on-one or a group setting? If it’s the latter, swearing can actually be considered a good thing, a sign of camaraderie, as talking freely (or giving zero f–ks) can create a sense of intimacy by signalling trust. Research shows that swearing correlates to honesty, which can suggest you are trust-worthy, ultimately creating a subliminal freewill among potty mouths – but again, context is key.
Dr Adams adds that, if you have accidentally sworn out of context recently, your chances of offending those around you is less than it would have been say, for your parents, thanks to the current cursing climate: “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.”
So you know… f—k it.