woman holding a cardboard sign with the symbols "%!#?&" to be representative of swearing
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
April 28, 2024 ·  5 min read

Science Say People Who Swear A Lot Actually Make Better Friends

Finding the right world to accurately express our emotions, particularly when we’re angry, frustrated, or stressed, can be difficult. In these instances, swearing can be very helpful with effectively getting our point across, or releasing some pent-up emotion.

Most of us are taught from a young age that we should not swear, as many curse words are deemed offensive or inappropriate. Science, however, says that people who swear might be more intelligent, and possibly make better friends.

People Who Swear Make Better Friends

Although profanity has long been associated with anger and coarseness, a collaborative team from the Maastricht University in Netherlands, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Stanford and the University of Cambridge determined that people who swear are less likely to be associated with lying and deception [1].

Because swearing is often used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity, those who swear often come across, at least, as more honest and genuine. Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, explains that the relationship between dishonesty and profanity is somewhat complex.

“Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion,” he says. “Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. “ [1]

The study was conducted in two parts. The first involved a questionnaire in which 276 participants were asked to write down their favorite swear words, and indicate the ones they use the most. They were asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took a lie detector test to see if they were telling the truth, or if they had just written down what they deemed to be acceptable.

The participants who wrote down more swear words were less likely to be lying.

For the second part of the study, researchers collected data from 75 thousand Facebook users and measured their use of profanity during online social interactions. They found that those who used swear words more often were more likely to use pronouns like “I” or “me”, which are language patterns that are associated with honesty [1].

Honesty is a trait that most people look for in a friend, so if people who wear more tend to be more honest, they likely make better friends as well.

People Who Swear are Possibly More Intelligent

The use of obscene language is often seen as a sign that the speaker does not have the vocabulary to adequately express themselves, and can be associated with lower intelligence. Science, however, is saying the opposite.

People choose to swear for different reasons- for linguistic effect, to convey emotion, for laughs, and sometimes to be intentionally mean. Psychologists have found that people who are able to come up with a greater variety of swear words also have a higher level of verbal fluency, aka, they have stronger language skills [2].

This demonstrates that individuals who are more articulate in their speech have a better understanding of how to use swear words in order to communicate more effectively.

Swearing can be Good for You

A study published in Neuroreport found that swearing may be an effective means of relieving pain.

Psychologists had participants immerse their hands in cold water and keep them there as long as possible. While they held their hands under the icy water, they were given the choice to repeat a swear word of their choosing or chose a “neutral” word.

The volunteers were able to keep their hand under the water for an average of 47 seconds longer while swearing, and reported feeling less pain compared to when they chanted a non-expletive [3].

Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England and leader of the study, advises people to swear if they hurt themselves.

“Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it,” he explained [3].

How swearing helps to alleviate pain, however, is less clear. It could be that swearing actually activates the part of our brains that incite the fight-or-flight response, in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain.

Swearing can also help to alleviate emotional pain, and make us less likely to act out physically. The catch, however, is that as we swear more, our words begin to lose their emotional potency. Once the emotion is taken out of the word, it no longer has the same soothing effect, so we must choose our words wisely [3].

The Effect of Swearing Depends on your Experience

The emotional impact of swearing changes from person to person, depending on their own experience and upon the context in which the word was used. How appropriate swearing is depends on several factors including the relationship between the speaker and the listener, the social-physical context, and of course which word was used.

In their study “The Pragmatics of Swearing”, Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz had native English-speaking and non-native English-speaking college students rate the offensiveness of swear words and the likelihood of hypothetical scenarios involving these words. 

For native speakers, offensiveness was dependent on age, while for non-native speakers, it depended on their experience with the English language. Their data demonstrated that understanding where, when, and with whom swear words are appropriate takes time for people to learn [4].

Swearing isn’t All Bad

All of this research is concluding that swearing is actually a highly essential part of speech that helps us to understand the link between what we say and how we behave. 

There are many other factors that determine how intelligent, happy, healthy, or calm someone is, but it appears that those who let out their frustration with an expletive more often tend to have a higher command of language and are less likely to resort to violence when they become angry or frustrated.

Of course, there are still many contexts and situations in which swearing is highly inappropriate, but if you are someone who tends to curse a little more than most, you may actually be better off for it, and a better friend too.

This article originally appeared on Secret Life of Mom and has been republished here with permission.

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  1. Frankly, we do give a damn: Study finds links between swearing and honesty.” Science Daily. January 17, 2017
  2. Swearing Is Actually a Sign of More Intelligence – Not Less – Say Scientists.” Science Alert. Richard Stephens. February 2017.
  3. Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief.” Scientific American. Frederik Joelving. July 12, 2009.
  4. The pragmatics of swearing.” De Gruyter. Walter de Gruyte. 2008.