GRACE’S MUSINGS: F*** THAT!
I love a bloody good swear. I know it’s controversial. And before we get into it, I should point out that, for me, it’s not about throwing in the F-word wherever I can.
That kind of gratuitousness would be pointless. Instead, it’s about a well-placed profanity to express my depth of feeling – a “F*** that”, for instance, when faced with the rules around what I “should”, or “shouldn’t”, be doing as a woman in midlife. Or when someone 20 years my junior chooses to mansplain some elementary concept to me …
For me, swearing is inextricably linked to power. And there’s a fascinating debate around it – one that I think is particularly pertinent to women. How often have we heard the old saying that swearing is unladylike? Or that it’s a sign of low intelligence? What a load of rubbish, splendidly blown out of the water in a study by American psychologist Dr Timothy B Jay.
In fact, swearing is a sign of verbal superiority, as well as social intelligence, according to Jay, who is professor emeritus of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts – and he should know. He’s been studying swearing for more than 40 years. “Having the strategies to know when it’s appropriate to swear and when it’s not is a social cognitive skill. That’s a pretty sophisticated tool.” The report also reveals that people who swear more frequently are likely to have a larger vocabulary – and be better educated – than their buttoned-up peers.
Profanity has evolutionary advantages, too. It can protect us from physical harm, offering us the chance to quickly express our feelings while avoiding repercussions – yet another of the reasons I love it. “A dog or a cat will scratch you, bite you, when they’re scared or angry. Swearing allows us to express our emotions symbolically,” says Jay. “It has that advantage of efficiency – it’s very quick and clear.”
And, surprisingly, swearing can help you cope with pain. A study by psychologist Dr Richard Stephens from Keele University found that people who cursed as they plunged their hand into icy water felt less pain, and were able to keep their hands in the water for longer, than those who used a more neutral word. Apparently swearing produces a stress response that initiates the body’s defensive reflex. A flush of adrenaline increases heart rate and breathing and, at the same time, there’s an analgesic reaction. Brilliant.
But what about the power angle to swearing? After all, that’s one of the reasons I find it such a joy. It’s all tied up with taboos and the ability to shock – though unhappily, that can still backfire if you’re a woman. Take Victoria Fierce, given a 12-hour Twitter timeout for telling then vice-president Mike Pence to “F*** off” after the rollback of protection for trans students. Yet look at the mentions of pretty much any high-profile woman and you’ll see plenty of slurs that don’t seem to land their (male) writers in any kind of trouble.
This gendered divide comes up in studies time and time again. Show someone a written “transcript” of a conversation that includes swearing and, if they’re told the speaker is a woman, respondents rate her as weak and repellent. Male swearers, on the other hand, are considered more dynamic and attractive. Apparently, it’s just not ladylike to swear – a nonsense that makes me f***ing furious.
Swearing is a brilliant communicative tool, and as women we owe it to ourselves to use it. Double standards will only change if we challenge them – and that includes standards around language. Emma Byrne, the author of Swearing Is Good for You, put it brilliantly when she said: “Women’s swearing, like women’s anger, seems to terrify and perplex. We can use that to our advantage. That might not feel easy: even when we’re incensed by an injustice, it can still feel uncomfortable to swear, because swearing demands attention. We’re not used to it.”
I’m all for demanding attention, in order to fight for what I believe in, and smash the taboos that still exist around women in midlife. We have a right to strong words, strong ideas and strong feelings – let’s use them to our advantage.