Back in 2007, a rash of newspaper articles followed hotly on the release of a study examining the effects of cursing in the modern workplace. Conducted by organizational psychologists in the UK, the researchers found that swearing tended to reinforce group bonds and promoted an atmosphere of productive camaraderie.
In other words, the researchers found that swearing was good for the economy.
In light of this new data, managers were encouraged not to overreact to swearing among team members. Quite the contrary: since the research found that a cursing worker was a productive worker, blue language was now to be interpreted as music to a manager’s ears.
Eager to break the good news to the business community and the public at large, mainstream media outlets were quick to sprinkle the Internet with their sage nods of approval:
- BBC: Swearing at work can “cut stress”
- AFP: Swearing at work boosts team spirt, morale: research
- FOXNews.com: Swearing at Work Eases Stress, Boosts Team Spirit
- WSJ’s Marketwatch.com: What the bleep! Swearing in the office can inspire teamwork
For many people, work is hell. Therefore, swearing at work not only bonds you to your co-workers, it also lessens the pain of being there in the first place.
Now, two academic budget years later, a new swearing study has been released with even more good news for the economy. As it turns out, a good curse now and again appears to buck-up those dutiful soldiers of the commuting classes by making them insensitive to pain.
Researchers at Keele University found that “swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.”
The findings are in contrast to an earlier theory that swearing was a signature of “catastrophism” — or “drama queen” behavior.
As anyone who knows one can tell you, drama queens are characterized by their propensity for emotional exaggeration. Likewise, catastrophism is an irrational assumption that things are worse than they actually are. A baseball player who suffered from this condition would “strike out” in their mind before they even got to the plate. A.A. Milne’s Eeyore springs to mind as a stand-in for someone suffering from a classic case of catastrophism.
But as it turns out, the study found that Eeyore’s perpetually pessimistic state of mind was less likely to be relieved by swearing than were those of Pooh Bear or Tiger, whose curses did indeed dull the pain of being a day laborer in Christopher Robin’s post-industrial menagerie.
A diminishment in swearing-related hypoalgesia with increased catastrophising may occur because negative emotions induced by swearing spill over into catastrophic thinking in those more predisposed towards catastrophising.
“In other words,” said lead researcher Dr, Richard Stephens, “swearing feeds into catastrophising and is unhelpful for pain tolerance in high catastrophisers.”
In short, the bad news for the perpetually bummed-out Eeyores of the world is that, for them at least, cursing doesn’t help.
Thus, according to the study, swearing should no longer be seen as a symptom of a psychological condition, but rather a reaction to an external stimulus.
The study also suggested that swearing may be an evolutionary adaptation in which a person suffering unexpected pain unconsciously invokes a biological threat-response, thereby preparing themselves for a fight-or-flight event.
Perhaps swearing first emerged as a sort of verbal talisman, wherein tribal hunters or warriors gained endurance whenever one was uttered. Once the trick was learned, cursing may then have taken the status of a psychic pep-pill, and finally as an adults-only bonding practice.
Swearing is particularly remarkable in that it is often used to juxtapose otherwise sacred human concepts with their conceptually profane antagonists. For example, curses often invoke human ideals — sex, fertility, motherhood, God — in a way that explicitly perverts their original meaning. What else could be the purpose of a term like m—– f—– but to impose a shock upon the human psyche?
Somehow, an utterance that juxtaposes the sacred with the profane has the effect of imparting motivation or succor through a dulling of pain and increased endurance.
Dr. Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is an expert in the psychology of swearing and the author of a number of books on the subject. According to Dr. Jay, swearing behavior is reinforced by the very social customs used to control it. In his view, the catalyst for profanity does not come from its mere invocation, but from the negative reactions of society.
What gives (bad words) power,” said Dr. Jay in an interview, “is that institutions in our culture — like religion, education and mass communication — sanction these words. And the more broadly they are sanctioned, the more power they have. And you get an ironic effect — that is, the more you ‘taboo’ it, the more powerful you make it. And so when your kid says a bad word and you punish him physically or verbally reprimand him … you’ve created an interest in (cursing).
According to Dr. Jay, the soap-in-the-mouth routine may temporarily balm the frayed wits of hapless parents, but only ends up reinforcing cursing as a rite of passage for their offspring.
Whether for social bonding, pain reduction, or ritual, “the main purpose of swearing,” wrote Dr. Jay in the Journal of Politeness, “is to express emotions, especially anger and frustration.”
Whatever the cause, cursing mixes the sacred with the profane to make an intentional hash of meaning — and to glorify the subsequent shock. It’s an infantile masturbation for adults — a self-assuring verbal friction that helps us keep our balance through the stresses of daily life. It’s a call to action that excites but never relieves. It’s a pep-pill against the cold. Whether salve or succor, cursing is a way of shoring up the ego against the potentially threatening unknown.
In the post-industrial economy, the modern practice of cursing has become the grist of sanity. It coarsens reality and makes it hurt less. And as famed British Neurologist John Hughlings Jackson once pointed up, it may also have paved the road for human civilization.