The Good Side of Bad Words
A psychologist on why swearing can be beneficial to your health
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In the video above, Catherine Caldwell-Harris explains why the eff those terms we all know, and most of us use, are not necessarily effing bad.
Swearing is unlikely to make the desired impression on in-laws, but it could be good for your blood pressure. That’s the suggestion of recent research revealing that the use of four-letter words can relieve stress, ease pain, and build camaraderie.
Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of psychology, is familiar with swearing, and even has become a recognized expert.
Eager to expand our own vocabularies, BU Today caught up with her and asked a few questions about how bad words can be a good thing.
BU Today: Can you describe your research on taboo words and swearing?
Caldwell-Harris: Between 1999 and 2003, I mentored a postdoctoral student from Turkey. I saw her learn English to proficiency in my laboratory.
One day we were joking around, and at one point when no undergraduates were around, we used a double entendre or an off-color phrase and she laughed along with us. We were surprised, so we turned to her and said, “Your English must really be improving, because you clearly know what we are talking about.”
She declared, “I can tell a sex joke in English, but I cannot tell a sex joke in Turkish.”
So we were all like, “What is going on here? What is it about using taboo words or sexual references in your native language versus nonnative that makes a difference?”
It seemed obvious that when you use taboo words in a language that is not your most proficient, they might not have the same emotional impact. So we started reading the literature and found that bilingual speakers in particular were saying they did not feel as much emotion when they used swear words in their nonnative language.
The idea I put forward is that swear words in a foreign language are a little like play money. You can use them without paying the emotional price.
So the study we developed was to use skin conductance — a physiological measure of emotional response — to try and demonstrate that when you hear taboo words in your nonnative language, your skin conductance amplitude is reduced. And that’s what we found. The overall finding is that there is reduced skin conductance in your nonnative language, not just for taboo words, but a host of emotional expressions, like endearments such as “I love you.”
My other taboo word study is with monolinguals. The insight we had in this study is that there is something with swear words that grabs attention — they are almost impossible to ignore. We used a technique from cognitive psychology called depth of processing. People were asked to read a study list of normal words (not emotional words) and process them either deeply or shallowly. With normal words, you remember them better when you process them deeply. Swear words are so emotional and attention-grabbing that they force you to process them deeply.
You’ve mentioned that swear words can build camaraderie in the workplace. Why?
When you are not allowed to use swear words and cursing, it puts a damper on your ordinary social activities with your peers. You feel constrained, sort of like your parents are admonishing you to speak correctly. The ability to freely express whatever comes into your mind in normal social interaction is a way of having control over your everyday life.
What did the latest research reveal about swearing and pain reduction?
Swearing allows people to vent, to blow off steam, and it could be seen as catharsis. On the other hand, one of the criticisms I have of the study is that it could simply be distraction. There are numerous studies showing that many things improve pain tolerance, like meditation, smiling, or holding hands with your romantic partner.
What are some of the wrong reasons to swear?
I think it’s helpful to think about why we are using these taboo phrases. Is it because we are seeking to relieve tension or is it to rile other people, show off, or take a special stance of “I’m cool” or “I’m an outlaw” or “I’m rebellious”? If your use of swear words is one of the latter, you need to think about whether that is helping your relationships.
Do you swear?
Like almost anyone in North America, I routinely use the full gamut of four-letter words in everyday conversations with my spouse, my siblings, my friends. But I’m in an interesting situation, where I’ve also been heavily socialized to be a professor. And I know that even when I’ve used a word like “shit” as an expression in a classroom situation, I see looks of horror on my students’ faces. So I’ve felt to some extent that I should not be using any expressions that are even slightly off-color around students.
So a dilemma was presented when I began researching taboo words. Like all psychology professors, I work with a team of undergraduates. We needed to discuss the linguistic stimuli — the four-letter words. I was not comfortable saying them with my research assistant. So it led to a lot of laughter and humor, where I was shown to be old-fashioned and restrictive, and while we ended up using common euphemisms, I don’t even want to say them in this conversation.
Who comes up with swear words?
When researchers study language change, one idea is that young people change the language. Teens in particular are thought to be the originators of new swear words. One thing I would like to know more about is what new swear words are coming on the scene. I’d like to leave it to our readers and viewers to post some comments to see if they think that they or their friends have actually originated any new taboo words.
Edward A. Brown can be reached at email@example.com Comments