Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty: Analytical Essay

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The overall purpose of my research was to look into the use of swearing by facilitators during group sessions as a method of improving group members' engagement with session materials and examples but also helping them more fully understand and internalise the learning. To do this I have looked mainly for studies which have been carried out by psychologists and industry professionals using the scientific method. Whilst there is some dissenting opinion, the overall consensus among those is that swearing adds value to speech in a way that euphemisms cannot (using the work “fuck” vs “f-word”). The study of swearing as a psychological question is a new one. There are four main areas that are currently being looked at: Swearing as a method for managing pain, Swearing dexterity as a predictor of dementia, Swearing as a way of making a point both logically, but also emotionally understood, and finally, as a way of engagement through mirroring and being at one with the pack. This report will concentrate mainly on the final two of those subjects as they are the most beneficial to the question posed.


I am of the opinion that the feedback from the auditors at NOMS regarding the use of swearing by facilitators is wrong. It feels like a throwback to 1964. The time of the Clean-up TV group and Mary Whitehouse where those that swear are “the Devil Incarnate” and “responsible for the moral collapse in this country” [1]. Though their argument that the group members will mirror this role modelling. Their conclusion that this is detrimental is incorrect. Using references from the scientific peer-reviewed reports and journals, I will argue that not only is there little to no negative impacts from swearing whilst facilitating groups but that there is a clear benefit that will help in the areas of; attrition, understanding and risk management, group management, engagement and retention.

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Swearing and emotional connection

One of the key roles of a facilitator is the ability to convey information in a way that can be clearly understood and internalised. Fundamental to this is finding a way to engage the diverse group members, and make the information relevant, compelling and personal.

A large part of all programmes that we run is for self-understanding, especially in the area of emotions. Men stereotypically find it difficult to understand and express emotions “trapped in the confines of a socialization process that tells them it’s unmanly to cry. To hurt, or to express the myriad other emotions we all experience as a result of living fully as human beings” [2]. At this point, you may be asking what this has to do with the subject matter. Understanding, memory, language processing and emotions are inextricably tied. To fully and clearly understand and internalise information there needs to be an emotional element. To connect the words to the world, to ground them in a person’s reality and to make people care. Professor Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has forged a career investigating why people swear. His main Thesis is that “swearing is not, as is often argued, a sign of low intelligence and inarticulateness, but rather that swearing is emotional language. In his words: ‘Curse words do things to sentences that non-curse words cannot do” [3]

Research by Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce at Bristol University in 2011 researched the use of swearing as it relates to Linguistic Relativity. This is the principle that the structure of a language affects its speaker’s worldview or cognition. “Thoughts are produced as a kind of internal dialog using the same grammar as the thinker's native language.” [4] An example of this in action would be to use the word ‘Friend’ English people can process the word without having to consider gender, whereas Spanish speakers would have different conceptualisations due to there being two words ‘amiga’ for a female friend and ‘amigo’ for a male. Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce examined the emotional responsiveness to two different forms of words which carry the same overall meaning. They used both ‘cunt’ and the euphemism ‘c-word’ and ‘fuck’ and the ‘F-word’. What they found was that participants exhibited greater autonomic arousal when the full word was used, indicating an increased emotional impact. This argues that swearing may access emotional centres of the brain without mediation by higher-level cognitive systems. This means that they can effectively bypass attention control, and cognitive inhibition, and most importantly avoid working memory going straight into long-term retention.

In “The Stuff of Thought” Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and a professor at Harvard, listed a few of the functions of swearing. Emphatic swearing, which is used for highlighting a point, and dysphemistic swearing, which makes a point provocatively. The difference here is important. Facilitators should be encouraged to use emphatic swearing for linguistic relativity purposes, however, dysphemistic swearing may cause group management issues by causing offence of over–stimulating the emotional response. It will be important for facilitators to be aware of this difference and ensure that they do not stray from Emphatic swearing.

Figure 1 - The method of memory

As figure 1 above shows, there are 2 main types of memory, Declarative memory is the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences and concepts. [5] Nondeclarative memory is acquired and used unconsciously and can affect thoughts and behaviours. It is this that the programmes we run aim to target, to ‘de-programme’ the brain from old unhealthy automatic responses and replace with pro-social ones. It should therefore be no surprise that one of the pathways of Nondeclarative memory is through the Amygdala which not only manages memory but also decision-making and importantly emotions and emotional response. It is this that swearing targets.

If one considers that psychology is the study of people, and if one agrees that people are emotional beings, then understanding swearing, as the language of emotion, can improve our understanding of people. Although he’s a comedian rather than a scholar Richard Dooling makes the point concisely that four-letter words are “inextricably bound up with almost everything”[6] and therefore to remove or curtail them for the sake of sensibilities diminishes a vital conduit for learning.

Swearing for connection, mirroring and role-modelling

One persistent argument that surrounds swearing is one of the impacts it has on others through the mirroring of traditionally ‘rude’ and ‘immoral’ language. It comes from those expecting that society will collapse if children are not protected from swearing and that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and creativity within language. Dr Timothy Jay states “this is the ‘poverty of vocabulary’ myth that people swear because they lack the right words due to impoverished vocabulary. Any language scholar knows otherwise”. [7] In his research paper volunteers were asked to take part in a Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) in 3 areas. The first was to give three letter words starting with the letters F, A, & S. The second to name animals and the third to list swear words and slurs. The experiment proved the ‘Fluency is Fluency’ hypothesis by showing a direct positive correlation in all areas. As a side note, it was shown that even though they were alone in a room talking to a tape recorder the incidents of slurs being used were largely outnumbered by both taboo expressive (e.g. Fuck) and general pejoratives (e.g. Fucker).

There has been research between swearing and honesty. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science [8] explored this. When Rhett Butler told Scarlett “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” in Gone with the Wind there was outrage and the film was fined $5000 ($92,570 accounting for inflation) for violating the Motion Picture Production Code. That said, the quote profoundly conveys Butler's honest thoughts and feelings. Until 2017 and Dr Jay’s study there was no scientific study on this, with the internet rife with heated discussions on the topic ( has many comments on the issue with a 50/50 tie between the two views).

As mentioned in the previous section profanity is commonly linked to emotions, with the spontaneous use usually the unfiltered genuine expression of emotions (think stubbing your toe, or crashing your car). When used in a more controlled sense the use of profanity often helps to convey world views or internal states. To insult an object, view or person. “Speech involving profane words has a stronger impact on people than regular speech and has been shown to be processed on a deeper level in people’s minds” [9].

The empirical investigation carried out in the report showed in all areas, using direct questionnaires as well as using Facebook status updates, that there was a strong correlation between the use of profanity and honesty. It also showed that men tended to be more dishonest than women matching with other literature with similar findings. [10]

Emma Byrne on her book Swearing is good for you, states “peppering our language with dirty words can actually help us gain credibility and establish a sense of camaraderie” which would clearly help group members buy into the message and skills that facilitators are trying to convey. In one study [11] by psychologists from Penn State University showed that an audience were more receptive to a message when swearing was used. This was done using different versions of a speech on lowering tuition fees. “The students who saw the video with the swearing at the beginning or in the middle rated the speaker as more intense, but no less credible, than the ones who saw the speech with no swearing,” “What’s more, the students who saw the videos with the swearing were significantly more in favour of lowering tuition fees after seeing the video than the students who didn’t hear the swear word.”

I hate to use him as a positive example, but Donald Trump is often categorised as “telling it like it is” by his fans. He often uses both propositional swearing and non-propositional, to lift his rhetoric and separate himself from the politicians in ‘the swamp’ and more as a man of a similar type to his fans. This is backed by research by Dr Began who states “Lots of people hide their emotions for lots of reasons, we infer that from someone swearing that they are not doing that. They must be conveying their emotional stance. If you want people to think that you’re telling the truth, then swearing may help with that”.

“In group settings, swearing can serve as a connector. Every generation and group has its own slang, which includes profanity. When you use that language, it’s almost like a password that gives you access to people hip to it.” [12] So, by tapping into this Facilitators can hope for better co-working with group members as it will be felt that they are talking on the same level as them, rather than the complaint that facilitators don’t know what it’s like and are only reading from a manual. By using common language as the group members would in daily life, and being ‘let in’, a barrier is removed and allowed group members to be more honest and open mirroring this realistic approach.

Just because profanity is being used it does not discount role-modelling in other ways. Presenting a pro-social attitude towards life, offending and co-facilitation do not break down with the use of foul language. It also does not encourage group members to swear more themselves, it only gives them permission to use the language that they are comfortable with outside of probation.


  1. en. Wikipedia.ord/wiki/Mary_Whitehouse#Television_and_war
  2. How to crack the code of Men’s Feelings by Barbara Markway PhD
  3. Swearing – The Language of Life and Death by Richard Stephens
  4. Trabant, Jürgen.'How relativistic are Humboldts 'Weltansichten'?' in Pütz & Verspoor 2000
  6. Bet your life by Richard Dooling 2006
  7. Jay, K.L., Jay, T.B., Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth, Language Sciences (2015),
  8. Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty
  9. Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, Michal Kosinski, David StillwellFirst Published January 15, 2017, Research Article
  10. Jay, T., Caldwell-Harris, C., King, K. (2008). Recalling taboo and nontaboo words. The American Journal of Psychology, 121, 83–103.
  11. Childs, J. (2012). Gender differences in lying. Economics Letters, 114, 147–149
  12. Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion Cory R. Scherer &Brad J. Sagarin Published online: 21 Aug 2006
  13. What the F by Benjamin K Bergen Published 2016
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