Swearing on Facebook? It’s a testament to your character
With its connotations with vulgarity, blasphemy and deviancy, it’s no surprise that profanity – or obscene language – has a history of being treated with disdain. It definitely wields the capacity to upset, as the producers of Gone with the Wind learned the hard way in 1939, after being slapped with a $5,000 fine (roughly $85,000 or £70,000 today) for the now iconic line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
Such a measure might seem draconian to today’s audiences, what with popular culture saturated as it is with expletives. Indeed, for all of its alleged coarseness, profanity has its merits: swearing can make you sound more theatrical, authoritative or emphatic – think Philip Larkin’s gloriously pessimistic lament for the human condition. It can make you seem more intimidating, or indeed more approachable, in accordance with your tone of voice, body language, decibels expended and so forth.
Most recently, a report in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, compiled by a team of researchers from the UK, the US, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, has unearthed that profanity is strongly associated with unfiltered expression and therefore honesty.
Co-author on the report, Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data analytics at the University of Cambridge, says: “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views.”
One survey undertaken by the team involved amassing data from 75,000 Facebook users and analysing their use of swear words in online social exchanges. The results were illuminating – those who used more expletives were more likely to employ a lexicon associated with honesty, for example using pronouns such as “I” and “me”. Geographical location was shown to have a bearing on inclination towards profanity, and of the Facebook users recruited from across the US, those in the North East (New York, New Jersey, Delaware and so on) were more readily inclined to swear, whereas those in the Southern states (think South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas) were more buttoned up.
Another questionnaire in the report asked 276 participants to list their favourite and most commonly used swear words, then rate their reasons for using these words. A subsequent lie test determined whether participants were telling the truth, or if they were just adhering to a construct of social acceptability. The research showed that those who wrote down more profanities were less likely to be lying.
This is arguably what clinched the 2016 presidential election, with researchers suggesting that Trump’s untempered Twitter feed and occasional use of swear words in speeches created a climate of trust, with some voters considering him more genuine than his rivals despite ample evidence to the contrary.
And while riddling your social media output with expletives may not be the best way to assure people of your integrity, those who expel the odd profanity are considered to be more genuine, honest people. More alarming than reassuring then, in Trump’s case…