Can you remember the last time your parents scolded you for swearing?
Throughout childhood, we’re conditioned to believe that swearing is inappropriate and crass. You could offend someone, it makes you seem uneducated, it’s unprofessional in the workplace… the list of reasons we’ve been told not to swear goes on and on.
But how bad is swearing, really? Is there a chance that it could be beneficial in business and optimization? As with most things people have told you that you absolutely should not do, there’s a chance you should be testing it.
What Do Psychologists Say About Swearing?
There are a lot of different categories for swear words, or taboo words as they’re often referred to in the academic world, to fall under. Here are a few according to Dr. Timothy Jay, who has done quite a bit of research on the psychology of swearing…
- Ethnic, racial, gender or sexual orientation slurs.
- Ancestral allusions.
For the most part, you’ll find yourself swearing more often in one of two scenarios…
- Social swearing. You’re hanging out with a group of close friends or at the bar after work with colleagues.
- Negative swearing. This doesn’t require an audience; I know you’ve dropped a “fuck” when you’ve stubbed your toe or burned dinner.
While swearing generally gets a bad reputation, research suggests that the human tendency to swear actually isn’t as problematic as we assume…
Swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Our work so far suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic. We know this because we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and rarely have we witnessed negative consequences.
Once you’re old enough that your parents won’t get you in trouble for swearing, it’s unlikely you will experience negative social or physical consequences.
Also, it’s not only frat boys swearing outside of a pub at 2:30 a.m. It’s Bryony Shaw, Olympic windsurfer, proclaiming that she’s “so fucking happy” after winning a medal. (Yes, BBC apologized for the slip, but it was undoubtedly a positive turning point for Bryony.)
Why? Because we actually swear to convey a wide range of emotions, not just negative ones…
Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.
In fact, there are quite a few reasons you might swear (whether it’s a conscious decision or an automated response)…
- You’re experiencing pain.
- In one study, undergrads asked to repeat a strong swear word were able to keep their hand in icy water for 40 seconds longer, on average, than when they repeated a neutral word. Afterwards, they also rated their pain as less intense if they repeated a strong swear word.
- You’re trying to build social bonds.
- Swearing can show you feel comfortable, that you’re being completely honest. If others are swearing, it can show you belong – maybe even build a bond or liking. Cialdini’s persuasion principle, “Liking,” says the more you like someone, the more you’ll be persuaded by them.
- You’re trying to be funny.
- A well-timed or unexpected swear word can be very funny.
- You’re angry and frustrated, but trying to avoid violence.
- It’s a form of release.
- You’re trying to add emphasis to what you’re saying.
- It adds emotion, urges people to pay attention.
- You’re fired up.
- In one study, after playing a violent video game for just 10 minutes, participants were able to write down significantly more swear words than those who had played a golf video game (much more relaxed).
You might be sitting there thinking, “Yeah, but I hardly ever swear. That’s for less intelligent people.” Actually, a study found that people who know a lot of swear words are more likely to have a big vocabulary.
In the words of Stephen Fry, “The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lackof verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.”
The reality, according to Dr. Timothy Jay, is that everyone swears on the regular, even you…
Swearing generally draws from a pool of 10 expressions and occurs at a rate of about 0.5 percent of one’s daily word output. However, it is not informative to think of how an average person swears: Contextual, personality, and even physiological variables are critical for predicting how swearing will occur. While swearing crosses socioeconomic statuses and age ranges and persists across the lifespan, it is more common among adolescents and more frequent among men.
Swearing an average of 0.3% to 0.7% of the time is a small, but significant percentage of overall speech. Frequently-used personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them) are only used at approximately 1.0% rate in speech.
So, Does Swearing Make You More Persuasive?
In one study, testimonies with profanity were considered more believable than those without.
Another study found that political speeches that include a mild swear word, like “damn” or “shit”, swayed sympathetic listeners more than speeches without a mild swear word. Likely because of the hint of passion. Listeners who were not sympathetic found it off-putting, making them even more skeptical.
Psychologists from Northern Illinois University found that using swear words to emphasize a point can improve the persuasiveness of your argument by increasing the perceived intensity without hurting credibility.
In a similar experiment, the use of swear words in a word-location task increased participants’ ability to recall the location of the word. Why? The amygdala lights up when a swear word is heard or read. It’s closely connected to memory and association centers in the brain.
Though, it’s important to note that people who swear habitually are noticeably less influenced by the use of swear words.
Obviously, It’s Risky to Swear in Copy
So, we all swear (quite frequently) and that can make us more persuasive. Why don’t we swear in every bit of copy that we write, then?
Because, of course, swearing comes with a degree of risk. Like most things, it can backfire.
In one study, participants said they would perceive a co-worker who swore in a formal meeting to be incompetent. From persuasive to incompetent… that’s quite a jump.
James Turner, a conversion copywriter and CRO consultant, explains why he is skeptical of swearing in copy…
But… Context and Relevancy Go a Long Way
As James points out, swearing can be appropriate in cases where context and relevancy make it so.
Jen Havice of Make Mention Media, for example, has had success with swearing in her copy thanks to context and relevancy…
Among optimizers who follow Peep and the ConversionXL brand…
…a little bit of swearing made sense and went over well. If she had been presenting to a different audience, her presentation might have fallen flat.
Studying your audience’s language can go a long way in deciding whether or not swearing in your copy is appropriate. People are more or less likely to swear based on many different factors, including their personality. For example, personality research suggests that people who swear often score higher for traits like extraversion.
Lianna Patch of Punchline Conversion Copywriting explains…
Note that your audience’s language can change as your relationship with them progresses. Actually, as Joel Klettke of Business Casual Copywriting and Case Study Buddy explains, swearing can say a lot about the stage of the relationship, about the bond shared…
Swearing can even help take new relationships to a deeper level, creating an entirely new context.
A study found that the use of swear words allowed factory workers to bond over and build solidarity based on shared frustrations. Likewise, researchers found that in an office setting, clever uses of casual swear words boosted morale and lowered stress.
As Lianna alluded to above, writing copy that reflects your in-real-life tendencies and showcases your personality can be an excellent way to filter out low quality leads and customers…
In case you didn’t have time to click through, here’s a screenshot of Lianna’s homepage…
My favorite example of using swear words to show personality in copy is Be an Unfucker, a site dedicated to fighting “eco apathy”…
Joanna also uses the word “mofo” in our Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization…
She might be on to something. Research has found that they are less likely to trigger strong emotional responses…
Euphemisms (such as ‘the F-word’), clever acronyms whose meanings are clear (for example, ‘FCUK’), and taboo words learned later in life (when learning a second language) have not been associated with emotions through conditioning to the same extent, and as a result, do not trigger strong emotional responses.
In the study, volunteers who read the actual swear words aloud showed increased sweating compared to those who read the politer, censored expressions (e.g. “f-word”).
Of course, this lack of a strong emotional response to euphemisms can also be a bad thing. No risk of a strong negative emotion, no chance of a strong positive emotion.
So, When (If Ever) Should You Swear?
It’s risky to swear in your copy and it’s risky not to swear. What’s the right thing to do, then?
First, be aware of and assess your personal risk level. Take the time to conduct the qualitative research. Who is your audience? What are they like? What words do they use? What words do they expect you to use based on your existing brand?
Without testing, you simply can’t know for sure whether swearing makes sense, but you can make an educated guess about whether it’s even worth the risk.
James cautions that the risk that comes along with swearing in copy is big, meaning you should be very confident in your qualitative data…
He has a point. You won’t offend someone by not swearing in your copy, but you might offend someone if you do. By simply not swearing, you avoid the risk of offending someone altogether. But, at the same time, you risk losing an opportunity to trigger a strong emotional response.
I’m not sure the risk of offending someone is reason enough to avoid swearing altogether. Perhaps the real trick is finding the perfect swear words to use. How can you use swear words that are “impactful” without verging on “offensive”? I’d wager that answer is different for every audience.
Joel seconds the notion that you can always get along without swearing, adding that it can even become a crutch…
Joanna stresses the need to conduct the research necessary to find the line between tasteful and crass. She suggests treating swearing the way you might treat jargon…
In the end, we can debate whether swearing in copy is a good idea or a bad idea until we’re blue in the face. The truth is you just won’t know until you’ve tested it. Once you’ve conducted the research and determined whether it’s even potentially a good idea, go ahead and test it for yourself.
You can guess where the line you’re trying to toe is, but the only way to know for sure is to experiment.
You shouldn’t go around swearing in your copy unnecessarily, but it’s not always a bad idea to drop an f-bomb. Just be sure you tread lightly.
Before you try it…
- Conduct the proper research. Who is your audience? What words do they use? Do they swear?
- Run an experiment. Start with the traditionally less offensive swear words (e.g. damn or shit). How does your audience respond quantitatively and qualitatively? Test to find the balance between attention-grabbing and just plain offensive.
Generally, swearing might be a good idea if you’re…
- Trying to deepen a relationship with a customer
- Trying to emphasize a specific message.
- Trying to ensure your audience remembers a specific message.
- Trying to catch your audience off guard and capture attention.
- Trying to make your audience laugh.
- Trying to rally people to contribute to a cause they’re already passionate about.
- Trying to show that you’re open and honest (assuming you use light swear words in real life).