Swearing Can Cost You Your Friends

Profanity pushes people away

Got a mouth like a truck driver? If you’re a woman, it could be costing you some friends. According to a study in the most recent issue of the journal Health Psychology, letting the f-bomb and other expletives fly can make friends who witness your crass language less sympathetic to your plight, no matter how effing painful it might be.

When frustrated, angry or sad, many of us express that hurt or rage through some colorful words. According to the science of swearing, using foul language is kind of like swallowing an aspirin -- it actually helps alleviate some of that pain. Until now, less was known about how our four-letter word choices affect those around us. Researchers at the University of Arizona set out to explore how swearing impacts both the person doing the bomb-dropping and those hit with the verbal shrapnel, so to speak. What they found was that profanity does in fact help us deal with pain, but in the process, may also push people away. To that we say, who freakin’ needs those Sally Sunshines, anyway?

According to researcher Matthias Mehl, associate professor of psychology at the UA and the corresponding author of the study, swearing once or twice, say, over a stubbed toe, isn’t likely to send friends packing. But using four-letter words on a continual basis as a means of coping with ongoing issues can be “socially toxic.” People are less likely to offer emotional support and withdraw from the offending friend. This, in turn, can make the expletive-loving friend feel worse over the long-term. In fact, says Mehl and his colleagues, (who I’m guessing don’t swear all that often) not getting the emotional support that you depend on from your friends in times of turmoil can even put us on the road to depression.

The study, which focused on middle-aged women with rheumatoid arthritis or breast cancer, found that the more often they swore, the more their friends backed off, and the more likely they were to suffer from depression. How effing sad is that? The women who swore only when by themselves, however, did not appear to repel their friends or be at a greater risk of depression. While you’re probably thinking, well, no sh*t, Sherlock, the researchers needed to study this aspect for comparison, to see if those who swear more frequently just naturally repel people.

I guess our little takeaway from this is swear your bleeping brains out in private, but when looking for some sympathy, use those annoyingly cutesy pretend swear words like drat and Fudgsicles! Or just go get yourself some friends who swear just as much as you do. Truth be told, the study didn’t say whether one’s flair for swearing made her any more immune to others’ expletives. Maybe even those with the filthiest of mouths still cringe when they hear others employ the F-bomb.

I must confess, I am not known for my pristine language. I’m such a consummate swearer, I can barely even contain myself around kids. I try, I really do, but sometimes they just sneak out. My mom is properly horrified, and snaps, “Jill Elizabeth, the language!” whenever I use anything harsher than “crap.” Still, when I hear strangers spraying expletives like machine-gun fire, I do, admittedly, cringe. I wonder if they know any other words in the English language, and wonder whether people think the same thing about me. According to this study, the answer to that latter part most definitively is yes.

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