Let's think about bad things people do. Lie! Cheat! Steal!
While society tends to regard the first three as bad, or simply taboo, behavior, swearing is more nebulous. Curse words exist because we've separated some words into a category of profane or offensive. But while lying, cheating and stealing all can lead to actual injury (physical or otherwise), swearing simply violates norms. Why give it a second thought?
"It's important because people make lots of assumptions about someone who swears, e.g. perhaps they have poor moral character," writes Dr. David Stillwell in an email. And Stillwell (a lecturer at University of Cambridge's Judge Business School) would know: He recently co-authored a study about swearing that looked at the relationship between profanity and honesty.
First, a little setup. While we often think of swearing as taboo — which means it goes against culturally grounded ideas of morality and taste — there's also a school of thought that swearing is an outpouring of genuine feeling. So Stillwell and his colleagues set out to see if swearing actually was a mark of frank honesty, or an indication that a person has other negative, norm-busting traits lurking behind their salty tongue.
For the first part of the study, they asked 276 participants to write down swear words they liked and most commonly used and why they used them. The researchers then had participants take a commonly accepted measurement of honesty. They found that participants were more likely to measure high on a scale of honesty if they wrote down more used and liked curse words, and self-reported higher use of cursing. The researchers also noted that people self-reported using profanity for expressing honesty about their feelings and negative emotions, as opposed to trying to insult or intimidate others.
Of course, most of us don't swear in a lab setting. The researchers were curious what we might learn from studying real-life cursing. So they went where all real life happens: the internet.
"It's very difficult to study profanity, because it's such a momentary behavior and people often don't even notice it," Stillwell says. "Facebook status updates are a great window into the words people actually use when talking to their friends."
Using data from 73,789 active Facebook users, they found something interesting about those who curse more in status updates: They were more likely to be honest. Specifically, they were more likely to also use words that researchers have shown are correlated with honesty (Note: The linked study is a fascinating read on its own.)
But simply judging individual swearing habits wasn't enough for the researchers. "Showing that our results are applicable on different levels makes them more likely to be reliable," Stillwell explains. So they also isolated the U.S. participants of the Facebook study, and averaged their profanity scores across the states. They then compared those scores to the State Integrity Investigation 2012. They found that the greater the use of profanity statewide, the higher the integrity score of the state they're from. So there you have it — curse away, and everyone will find you more honest.
Well, hold up. As Stillwell points out, he and the other researchers only studied the perspective of the swearing person, not how they're perceived. But there's a silver lining. "At least," Stillwell points out, "if you're on the end of a swearing tirade, you know there's a greater likelihood that they're telling you what they really think."