In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • PhilBowermaster

    We seem to be at a cultural inflection point concerning profanity. Look at the use of the word “fucking” for emphasis in things like the Facebook group I Fucking Love Science. I subscribe to its companion site, Science Is Awesome, because I don’t want to have profanity in my news feed. That way I avoid profanity in my timeline if I share one of the stories. Could be a status thing, although I thought I was just avoiding having my mom or my kids be exposed to that kind of thing coming from me.

    Yeah, probably a status thing.

    Anyway it seems that there is something deliberately “working class” abut that usage. They’re not necessarily trying to be offensive or transgressive naming the group that. They just want to show their approval in a hands-on, down-to-Earth way.

  • Ben Albert Pace

    PhilBowermaster;

    Why are you avoiding having your close family members see swear words coming from you? Or at least, what is it about swear words coming from your computer screen that is bad for you?

    • PhilBowermaster

      In the case of my mother, I don’t want to offend her. In the case of my kids, I don’t want to set a bad example.

    • cd

      If you don’t keep swear words slightly taboo, they stop working as a way to let off steam.

      • Ben Albert Pace

        I recall on “Stephen Fry’s Planet Word” that he and Brian Blessed took their turns to place a hand in freezing water and swear profusely, seeing who kept their hand in longest. Fry, who generally swears less than Blessed, kept his hand in much longer, and the theory is that swearing can reduce pain sensitivity, especially in those who swear the least.

        The effect is known as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypoalgesic_effect_of_swearing

        It’s a funny scene if you can find it.

  • Mestroyer

    “I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.”

    Among students at my undergrad university (and as far as I can tell, the university I’m currently doing grad study at, though I’ve only been here a month and a half), profanity is very common. I doubt most students know or care about campus speech codes, because they aren’t really enforced.

    Given this, how could speech codes hurt productivity? (Not by preventing the benefits of profanity). How could productivity hurt speech codes? (Not by being so high that it required profanity, which was so widespread that administrators were forced to repeal speech codes, because I think administrators would keep the speech codes and just not enforce them).

    I don’t think this is very strong evidence at all that universities aren’t about productivity.

    Here is a page about my undergrad university’s speech codes:
    http://thefire.org/spotlight/codes/43.html
    People were (occasionally) using racial slurs jokingly, people having become blase about sex-based profanity.

    I bet it’s more a way of empowering administrators to discipline students who they judge for other reasons to deserve it.

    It’s hard for administrators to describe in words exactly what constitutes disallowed behavior, and college students love to use the “letter of the law” to their advantage. So if, officially, you make the category of allowable behavior narrow, and disallow everything that is too hard to classify in advance, no one is going to give you trouble for not fully enforcing your rules later (or at least, you’ll get much less trouble). And then you can leave the true rules up to judgement calls of whoever does the enforcing later, and when they decide to discipline students (which is when the paper law must be on their side) it reliably is.

  • Pingback: In Praise Of Profanity | Foggytown's Micro Blog

  • Faze

    For some reason, assigning the use of profanity to working class people as a fitness signal sounds old fashioned and kind of patronizing. Phil Bowermaster’s comment on “I Fucking Love Science” is more closer to the contemporary uses of profanity: as a generational marker. Young people use profanity to assert their status among their peer group. What does “Fucking” add to “I Love Science”? It’s a little bit of swagger that earns the blogger points for daring before anyone even reads his blog. Stand up comics pad their routines with minute after minute of repetitive profanity — permitting their audience to bond around their what they believe is their shared tolerance and even admiration for the public use of profanity. Every generation seems to think they’ve invented profanity, just as they seem to think they’ve invented sex.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Which words are profane changes by time and place. It used to be most curses were religious/blasphemous in nature (even the word “curse” itself!). There’s scatological, anatomical & obviously sexual words. Even variants of “fuck” are becoming common now, but ethnic slurs can still be a big Joe Biden deal.

  • jhertzli

    What sort of curse words would ems use? “Power failure”? “Line Noise”? “Program typo”? Would a em cursing too often be told to wash out its output registers?

    • Ronfar

      I’m fond of “spam” as a curse word. It’s even four letters long…

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Human emotions are intricately bound with our physical bodies. Antonio Damasio wrote about this extensively in “Descartes’ Error”. Will ems have software-only body analogues allowing them to feel human emotions?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Ems living in a virtual reality would have virtual bodies, while ems doing physical jobs would use physical robotic bodies. Both can ground emotional cognition.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

    While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments.

    The cited article provides some reason to think there are, in fact, universal advantages to “refined” speech:

    “Yes, it is tough to toil in the shadow of trash. When researchers in another study asked participants to quickly scan lists of words that included obscenities and then to recall as many of the words as possible, the subjects were, once again, best at rehashing the curses — and worst at summoning up whatever unobjectionable entries happened to precede or follow the bad bits.”

    • Alexander Stanislav

      But refined speech wasn’t even compared to speech with curse words in that study. The only thing that was compared was curse words and non-curse words within lists of words that contained curses.

  • IMASBA

    “Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity,”

    So sexual harassment = profanity? Really? You don’t think the inherent creepyness, intimidation and asymmetry of harassment (or bullying) set it apart from swearing?

    “Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.”

    Why wouldn’t EMs just be created without the ability to be emotionally bothered by stress (or provided with a continuous stream of virtual cocaine)?

    • MugaSofer

      … because cocaine isn’t noted for it’s productivity-enhancing effects?

      • IMASBA

        Actually, in the creative industries it is, otherwise there is metamphetamine and of course with EMs you don’t have to mess with chemicals, you can just code the perfect drug.

  • Faze

    Hmm. Now that I think about it, ALL of the surgeons I work with are high-powered cussers, the medical doctors less so, and the scientists least of all. This would support Robin’s suggestion that cussing signals physical and emotional toughness in professions where those are requirements. What could be more physically and emotionally demanding than surgery?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Based on your report, I’ve added surgeons to the list of related jobs in the post.

  • Ely Spears

    There is also the problem that moral constructs can be specific to organizations, nations, clubs, etc. and within a given group, profanity will have a different context. I see this more as a battle between “the sacred” and “the profane.” Common curse words may be totally acceptable at some firm, but making a joke about the wrong political party could get you fired. So what defines profane language really means: are you expressing a challenge to the dominant viewpoint? Are you trying to break a certain taboo?

  • efalken

    Swearing surely has a signaling component, but it also conveys and is symptomatic of sincere anger/frustration.

    Roy Baumeister wrote a book on the benefits of discipline. He notes self-control is one of the most important traits in predicting success in life, good relationships, earning more money, being successful in your field, staying out of jail, even living longer. It’s the foundation for morality and moral behavior. It is one of the more important factors in a person’s success, and unlike IQ very amenable to training. Practicing self-control, including not swearing, and so like a muscle, willpower improves with practice.

    In contrast, beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg thought that restrictions on swearing inhibit communication, even morality.

    I think not swearing is a good habit, and the degeneracy of Ginsberg is a good illustration of how he failed to apply discipline to his lifestyle, as he grew more incoherent as he aged; Baumeister, meanwhile, is a very happy, intelligent, engaged man at 62. Further, when used rarely, it retains emphasis for those various times you really want to communicate urgency or importance; if you say ‘fuck’ all the time, you’ll have to say ‘dadgummit’ when you are really mad, otherwise it sounds like no big deal.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Don’t you think that surgeons, warriors, movie-makers, etc. need and have a lot of self-control? Yet they swear a lot. So maybe it is not just a simple measure of self-control.

      • efalken

        Not ‘just’ to be sure. Kissing isn’t just for pleasure, math isn’t just for finding proofs. Everything’s multidimensional and has a golden mean.

        Personally, I’ve found that when I get into funks where I’m swearing a lot, I’m generally not being very thoughtful and considerate, not being the best I can be.

        Plus, there’s countersignaling, where people of super-status can ape lower status signals (eg, cant, fashion) without concern precisely because it shows how super-status they are. A middle status person might be afraid of being conflated with a lower status person, while a surgeon or movie director can easily reference his office, degree, or BMW, and know he will never be confused in this way; it gives him a license his college buddies can’t afford, and he revels in it.

    • Alexander Stanislav

      Why do you think that swearing leads to less self-control?

      Its not at all clear to me that swearing leads to less effective communication. I have no problem communicating urgency or importance with or without swearing.

      • efalken

        Baumeister’s book on Discipline makes that argument. Of course, it’s not a panacea, so it’s neither necessary or sufficient condition of being disciplined in other areas of your life. It just helps.

        I think it’s important to use words for emphasis rarely, to better load them with the emphatic connotation. If you swear all the time, what do you say when you are really emotional?

      • Alexander Stanislav

        Regarding Baumeister, I suppose I will have to see his data and arguments.

        Have you heard of Gordon Ramsay? Its very easy to tell when he is emotional even though he swears all the time (it seems to be a British thing). I have no idea why you think that it is so difficult to communicate emotion. Most of the emotion isn’t communicated in the words anyway.

    • IMASBA

      “I think not swearing is a good habit, and the degeneracy of Ginsberg is a good illustration of how he failed to apply discipline to his lifestyle”

      You can’t just generalize like that: always exercising self-control (and according to your culture’s definition of self-control) makes some people feel like zen masters, for others it feels like prison, like not really being alive. People have different personalities and it’s best if we let them free to choose to swear, or not.

      • efalken

        Like all good habits, they help statistically, not all the time, for everyone, everywhere.

    • MugaSofer

      “Swearing surely has a signaling component, but it also conveys and is symptomatic of-”

      So wait, it has a signalling component and … another signalling component?

  • Richard Tinker

    In the mid 1980’s I was a senior in HS. My “advanced placement English/literature” teacher – an absolute genius, if also a barely-functioning desperate alcoholic – asked me to take a note to my physics teacher. I was stunned when I glanced at the note…but I’ve never forgotten what she said next: “Never underestimate the power of a well-placed expletive!” I’ve availed myself of that advice often (but not too often, as repetition dulls the shock value).

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress.

    Depending closely on others is itself stress (for lack of personal control over outcomes). Isn’t a more parsimonious hypothesis that high stress promotes profanity, and the social norms accommodate this reality?

    In the end, you seem to provide a functionalist explanation without there being any apparent mechanism by which a _mileu_ might coordinate on norms that optimize for allocation and incentive.

    Here’s an empirical test. If cursing promotes toughness, then the best surgeons will curse the most. If cursing expresses failure to exercise self-control, then the best surgeons will curse the least. (I think I’d give 3 to 1 odds that it would turn out my way.)

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’d bet against you at those odds.

    • Doug

      I don’t know about surgeons, but going down Robin’s list… From personal experience the best finance traders certainly curse a lot more than the mediocre ones.

      • IMASBA

        There are no good and bad finance traders, just lucky and unlucky ones. The lucky ones probably take great risks (and they know it) and are therefore more stressed. Stephen Diamon’s theory does make some sense. Swearing has been shown to help people cope with stress and physical pain and swearing in front of others signals trust and respect.

  • JL

    My data points are for more explained by toughness than income, education or productivity pressures. I think the level of male culture in the environment dominates the sample.
    FHI is very productivity driven, yet I think I have never heard them curse in the work environment.
    My Jiu-Jitsu friends have incomes much higher than my undergrad friends, yet the curse 100 times more (this is not a figure of speech).
    My poor working class friends tend to curse less than undergrad friends, a little more than FHI. (But it might be just when their rich friend is around).
    My father curse a lot, he is a Professor. He didn’t do it on the University, just with me. He might have been trying to pass manly values to me.
    LWers don’t curse, but are among the most rude people I know.
    MIRI staff never curse nor are rude, they are just direct.
    My friends on a neuroscience lab (all males) curse less than my Jiu-Jitsu friends but more than any other group.

    I gather cursing or aggressive verbal communication is just a result of a competitive male environment, I couldn’t very much verify you theory, although it was mildly favored by my data points, the evidence is too weak.

    FHI is a point out of the curve, a lot of males, little concern about traditional moral values, high-productivity driven environment, yet I have never heard them curse at work. Might be because few of them are native-speakers, certainly is hard to learn how and when to curse outside your mother tongue.

    • JL

      *I’m counting LW rudeness as cursing without using the words which would get your comment deleted. Maybe that’s how EM will behave, if they have some kind of cultural inheritance from humanity, they might drive away from the curse words but use other methods for testing and evaluating efficiency.

    • IMASBA

      What decides how much you swear is probably not so much your present socioeconomic status that, but that of your parents and grandparents. Maybe those Jiu-Jitsu friends came from working class families. And yes, there are many ways to be rude that do not require swearing, in fact some swearing doesn’t have to be rude at all in some settings.

  • Marc Geddes

    There’s a lot of swearing in gangster movies. Interestingly, real gangsters never used to swear that much, it was only after gangster movies had pervaded popular culture that all the thugs decided they needed to start swearing like in the movies.

  • Chelsea Edgell

    I second IMASBA’s request for the reasoning behind conflating sexual harassment with profanity, especially since profanity is almost always either verbal or gestural, whereas harassment can, depending on how it is defined in certain environments, encompass a much wider range of behaviours.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Saying “Existing laws against A discourage B” is not to say that A=B. If the legal definition of A is very broad, it may discourage a great many things besides the more narrow concept A’ that most people wanted to discourage.

      • IMASBA

        If A is totally not B then why mention it in the first place? Please don’t be a politician about this and state clearly why you consider sexual harassment (and I assume bullying as well) relevant to the topic. You’ve already shown you think at least some instances of sexual harassment are actually good for productivity and overlap with swearing so much that (at least American) laws do not effectively discriminate between harassment and swearing. There are just so many crucial differences between profanity one one side and harassment and bullying on the other that I, as a red-blooded heterosexual male have absolutely no difficulty recognizing the distinction. Maybe it’s a generational gap thing, like that time you wrote about loosening marriage/relationship norms leading to inequality issues for men, without even considering women would be just as much affected.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        If A is totally not B then why mention it in the first place?

        Because workplaces that don’t have rules against profanity invariably have rules against sexual harassment. Rules against sexual harassment “chill” profanity because seemingly mere profanity can be deemed sexually harassing, if for no other reason than that women may perceive profanity as sexually harassing and it can be used for that purpose.

        This fits in with another commenter’s observation that profanity use is a function of the masculinization of a field. (Some folks still deem it rude to cuss in front of a lady, although their numbers are rapidly declining.)

      • IMASBA

        “Rules against sexual harassment “chill” profanity because seemingly mere profanity can be deemed sexually harassing”

        Only under very specific conditions, at least in somewhat sane jurisdictions. It’s probably more common for people who harass or bully others to hide behind profanity than it is for real profanity to be mistaken for harassment or bullying by the management/authorities. Obvious clues are assymetries of power or otherwise (it’s not merely profanity when your boss gives you a nickname but he punishes you when you give him one, that would be bullying).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        at least in somewhat sane jurisdictions.

        And which would those be? When having child pornography on one’s computer is a federal felony, there is no sanity anywhere in the United States about sex misdeeds.

  • Matthew Hammer

    As an alternative, the upper classes (speaking historically, and primarily about the nobility rather than aspirational bourgeois) may have sworn less because they were generally the class that specialized in warfare. Thus being more prone to violence (due to both availability due to training and some selection for natural ability), politeness would have been functional to avoid potentially dangerous conflicts.
    The lower classes, being less skilled at murderous violence, would have had more scope for a hawk-dove equilibrium in impoliteness.
    The rise of campus speech codes might then be due to an increasingly litigious environment (i.e. violence by other means) which once again encourages “politeness” or at least tighter control of offensive speech.

    If this is the case, one would expect impoliteness to have increased as violence was more tightly monopolized by the state and enforcement against violent behavior improved. You would also expect more politeness in areas where violence is common and enforcement is weak. If none of that is true, that would strengthen the signalling argument in comparison.

    • IMASBA

      “the upper classes may have sworn less because they were generally the class that specialized in warfare. Thus being more prone to violence politeness would have been functional to avoid potentially dangerous conflicts.”

      You mean prone to use conscripted peasant armies to settle their differences. But you’re right, there was a strict etiquette to make sure costly conflicts would not break out because of misunderstandings or a slip of the tongue.

  • Sled Dog

    Probably not a stretch that most group or pack animals behave similarly – “swearing” as signaling status. I have 4 dogs (3 husky’s and a malamute) and almost every day they will all start barking loudly and aggressively in very close proximity to each other (snouts almost touching) for a few minutes and then in an instant stop. What is interesting is that before they all start up they can be quite excited and/or on edge – you can tell that the energy changes and goes up a notch. During, the alpha male will show his teeth, growl, bark aggressively or even snap at the beta male who does the same but with less growling. The other beta male who is usually the most excited (youngest) but less of an alpha challenger usually just gets involved for effect. The female usually doesn’t bark as much or nearly as aggressively (I guess she has nothing to prove). After they’ve vented, all the dogs are calm. It never leads to fights, although I’m sure it could if we didn’t keep an eye on things, but who knows.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Interesting observation, but it’s low status humans who, overall, swear most. (Still, it might be related.)