No profanity, no problem
Economics and business teacher Susan Lidholm said for her Investments 101 class she was previewing the movie “The Wizard of Lies,” a biopic about former investment advisor Bernie Madoff who is currently in jail for running a Ponzi scheme which defrauded $64.8 billion.
The movie received a TV Mature rating, in part for extreme profanity, with over 40+ uses of the f-word. Lidholm described the plot of the movie as “perfect,” for her class, but said she can’t “feel comfortable hearing [profanity] every five seconds.”
Overall, swearing in media has increased drastically, with one 2017 study finding the f-word was 168 times more frequent in contemporary literature than 60 years prior.
The rise in swearing is not limited to media; children are cursing more often, and at an earlier age than in past decades, according to research from Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. This rise mirrors an increase in swearing among adults, with Jay’s research showing most kids copy taboo words from their parents. Economics and business teacher Susan Lidholm said she has seen the overall negative perception of profanity decrease, as students begin to curse more not only in classes but also in the hallway.
“Sometimes, the best way of communicating is by using a taboo word.”
“When I first started teaching, [swearing] was never acceptable, and we would actually write it up as a delinquent behavior. Now, if we were writing it up, I would constantly be writing it up,” Lidholm said. “I think that [swearing] is more of a society norm, which makes me tremendously sad that that’s OK. I also think that it shows society’s ignorance that we cannot form our language … better than using inappropriate language.”
Not all cursing proves harmful, however. Profane words come in five categories, according to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. The first is an abusive swear, usually a slur, which the speaker intends to belittle a person or a group. The second is a dysphemistic swear, which evokes negative feelings in someone else but is not derogatory. Third is the idiomatic swear, meant in common conversations to indicate comfort or familiarity with the person one is talking to. Fourth is the emphatic swear, which one inserts in conversations to stress certain accompanying words. Finally, there is the cathartic swear, which is used to help diffuse discomfort.
Cathartic cursing can become particularly useful in its ability to spike adrenaline. A 2009 study from Keele University’s School of Psychology found because swearing causes a “fight or flight” response, it can increase pain tolerance. Additionally, in a 2018 study from the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, subjects exerted greater physical strength when using taboo words than when they did not while exercising.
In school settings, swearing occurs more for idiomatic or emphatic uses rather than cathartic. Lidholm said she tries to model professional language in her instruction to students to discourage swearing. If she notices a student using profanity excessively, in her class or in the hallway, Lidholm said she would take the individual aside privately to encourage him or her to use different words.
“Most of the time the kids are very respectful that if you bring [their swearing] to their attention — and maybe they don’t even know that they’re doing it — then most of our students [stop] at that time,” Lidholm said. “You’ve got to remember I’m teaching a business course, and that’s never acceptable in a business atmosphere.”
Studies teacher Greg Irwin said if a student were to use a profane word to demean or attack another person or were consistently swearing in class then he would talk to the student outside. Irwin said he thinks cursing usually represents anger, so he would check if the student was alright and ask why they were choosing to use those words.
“As I’ve gotten older, some of my mentor teachers and some of my professors in college would swear from time to time, and the first time it happened, it was off-putting to me,” Irwin said. “And then, as I thought more about sociology, it’s people just expressing anger or frustration. And so in my classroom, as long as it’s not directed at a person … then most of the time I let it go.”
A 2013 paper from the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at Tilburg University explains that swearing can both positively and negatively affect a speaker’s persuasiveness dependent on the situation. In the appropriate context, cursing can raise a speaker’s credibility “because it is an expression of emotions and for that reason seems more genuine and honest to other people,” author Professor of Clinical Psychology Ad Vingerhoets writes. Irwin said he thinks profanity can prove useful in conversations to adequately represent one’s emotions.
“Sometimes, the best way of communicating is by using a taboo word,” Irwin said. “That’s what cuss words are; there’s [a] taboo; there’s seven to 10 words students can’t say. And so why do people say them? It’s a way to break social norms to communicate, ‘I’m feeling strongly.’”
“I think that [swearing] is more of a society norm, which makes me tremendously sad that that’s OK. I also think that it shows society’s ignorance that we cannot form our language … better than using inappropriate language.”
Sophomore Carson Dale said he first started swearing in middle school but calls it a habit he tries to minimize. Dale said he thinks students his age curse too much, himself included, which can cause the words to lose some of their emphasis.
“I think swearing is a tool in language that should be used sparingly,” Dale said. “[Swearing is] not something meant for a classroom setting, [but] it can have benefits if used sparingly.”
As he noticed students using taboo words, Irwin said he developed a philosophy on the issue which largely comes from teaching sociology at RBHS. He pointed out the school of thought of functionalism, which Irwin said taught him to realize that “everything serves some sort of purpose,” so his job is to identify the reason behind a student using a curse word rather than passing judgement. Irwin said growing up, he thought the way he spoke was the way Standard English was spoken because “all of my teachers talked that way, pastors, people on the radio, TV, everyone talked like me.” When he went to college and began working with students, however, Irwin said he noticed a lot of people “talked differently than me,” leading him to consider the sociological aspect of linguistics.
“[When I became a teacher], the issue of cussing came about, and I remember, in this classroom 14 years ago, I had a student in the middle of a socratic seminar jump up and yell at another student ‘You’re an effing Uncle Tom,’” Irwin said. “And, in the process of dealing with everything that went down, I had to figure out, ‘What is this student trying to do and communicate?’”
“Nowadays, [swearing] is unfortunately very much [a] part of the culture, especially in high school. So, of course, I hear it everywhere. And while it is less than appreciated, I have certainly learned to tolerate it and, in some ways, understand the reason some people may choose to speak the way they do.”
In class and outside of school, sophomore Nina Schneider said she chooses not to swear because of her faith. While not every profane word “takes the Lord’s name in vain,” Schneider said she views all cursing through that lens. Christianity derives this principle the Third Commandment in the Ten Commandments, which are a set of ethical tenets believed to be passed down from God to Moses. Although Schneider does not personally use curse words, she said she doesn’t judge people who do.
“Nowadays, [swearing] is unfortunately very much [a] part of the culture, especially in high school. So, of course, I hear it everywhere,” Schneider said. “And while it is less than appreciated, I have certainly learned to tolerate it and, in some ways, understand the reason some people may choose to speak the way they do. Whether it is the desire to fit in and speak the way others do or not knowing how else to express themselves, I empathize. And then there are probably people who do it for fun and have no deep reason for their choice, and I guess that’s fine too.”
Beyond the idiomatic swearing Schneider mentions she hears around school, which can serve to strengthen relationships, cursing can also indicate a wider knowledge of the English language. A 2014 study from Jay gave participants the Controlled Word Association Test, a popular measure of verbal fluency. The researches followed this with a similar test presented to subjects that measured knowledge of curse words. Results found fluency in taboo words was positively correlated with overall linguistic skill, meaning those who knew more profane words generally scored better on their knowledge of English.
Although swearing can provide benefits, Lidholm said she thinks students should not curse excessively in school or the halls because, in her opinion, that represents the student body negatively. While she personally does not choose to use profanity, others might depending on their friend groups or a situation’s context.
“[Swearing is] a reflection upon you,” Lidholm said. “If I’m going to be a communicator, and I choose to use those words, first off, why am I choosing to use those words? Or, am I using those words to be accepted by a certain group of peers? And is that really what I want to be a reflection of me?”
Do you think profanity should be used in school? Let us know in the comments below.