Swearing Is Good For You // Emma Byrne

Dr Emma Byrne works as a robotics scientist whilst extending her fascination with profanity. Today she posed and answered questions, giving descriptions of her research.

Does swearing help us?

It can reduce stress, encourage teamwork and better friendships, and deal with pain. It can also deflect rather than act as a proxy for physical violence.

Why do we swear when in pain? 

Byrne invited a volunteer to leave his hand in ice water for as long as possible, firstly saying only ‘straight’. He later repeated the exercise but was allowed to say ‘shit’. ‘Straight’ resulted 19 seconds whereas ‘shit’ gave 45 seconds. So, had the swearing eased his pain or given him the courage to withstand it?

Why is swearing good for us? 

Apart from anything else, we gain information. For example, we can assess which team is winning by listening. Football fans tend to use ‘shit’ when things are going badly and ‘fuck’ while they are going well.

What are swear words?

Swearing has been used as a diagnostic tool for over 150 years, yet there is still no definition. There are recognised topics but most gradually lose their potency. Blasphemy has little impact now; sexual terms are becoming less shocking as they are incorporated into more normal language and used as a kind of verbal seasoning. Words used against the individual, as in sexism, racism and homophobia are the most taboo now.

Why do we resist it?

We all have the right to swear but some people are offended and assume others will be too.  When we hear swearing we consider our feelings rather than think what it is doing for the speaker or what s/he is trying to do.

Do men swear more than women?

Some suggest that swearing by women is odious to God and women are too innocent to even understand the words. Huh! Whilst Byrne suggested it is true that, in public, women are milder in swearing than men, when together we say whatever the fuck we want. 

Emily Bronte wrote swear words when they were appropriate for her characters, and that word ‘appropriate’ is crucial to any consideration of swearing. We could have spent longer exploring questions about appropriacy; different languages; animals and swearing; judging or accepting those who swear; physiological effects; etcetera, but we had no time.

Did we expect Byrne to swear her way through the presentation? Probably. But her use was entirely appropriate and showed how much swearing can enrich what is being said.

- Joy Pascoe


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Swearing is Good For You - Dr. Emma Byrne

Swearing is Good For You (Article) - RSA Journal Issue 1

Dr. Emma Byrne: The Sweary Scientist

Why We Swear (Four Thought) - BBC Radio 4 

Why Swearing Makes You Stronger - Alan Burdick, The New Yorker