Swearing in pain may be socially toxic

U. ARIZONA (US) — While a bit of blasphemy may take the sting out of a stubbed toe, overuse of profanity is a good way to lose friends and alienate those around you.

Research has shown the analgesic benefits of swearing, but a new study with a small sample of women finds that for people with serious health issues such as chronic illness or injury, using foul language comes at a cost.

“We find that swearing by yourself is pretty innocuous and may—or may not—help for coping with health issues,” says Matthias Mehl, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and the corresponding author of the study.

“However, swearing in the presence of others can, in certain populations, run the risk of putting off your social network, which may react with a withdrawal of emotional support, which can then in turn put you on a path toward developing depression.”

Mehl and graduate student Megan Robbins, the study’s lead author, followed up on a study  about pain and swearing because it neglected the fact that swearing is often a social phenomenon and as such could have interpersonal consequences for coping as well.

“Specifically, we wondered whether swearing can be ‘socially toxic’ and erode the availability of social resources that are needed for coping well with adversity,” he says.

The study, published in the journal Health Psychology, is part of a larger research endeavor to show how small and subtle things in daily lives can be psychologically important and consequential.

For the study, the researchers hypothesized that swearing would be related to receiving less emotional support, which in turn would put patients at risk for developing depression.

Subjects in the study were fitted with electronic eavesdropping devices that recorded 50-second sound bites every nine minutes, about 10 percent of their daily routines. The devices are unobtrusive and the subjects never knew exactly when the devices were recording and when not.

“We also hypothesized that this sequence should be limited to swearing in a social context and should not happen when patients swear by themselves. And, indeed we found that swearing in the presence of others but not swearing when alone was related to decreases in emotional support, which in turn where related to increases in depressive symptoms over the course of the study period,” Mehl says.

“Statistically, the decreases in emotional support mediated the effects of swearing in the presence of others on depressive symptoms suggesting that the hypothesized causal sequence might indeed exist, even though, of course, correlational patterns can never establish causality.”

The study had a small sample size but raised a number of questions he said will be addressed in a series of follow-up studies.

“Our sample consisted exclusively of women in midlife for whom swearing might have violated gender and age norms. Thus, it is unclear to what degree acting in nonstereotypic ways, or swearing, was ultimately responsible for the dwindling of emotional support. In other words, it is possible that the negative interpersonal consequences of swearing may not extend to other populations,” Mehl says.

Other populations such as men, who face fewer social prohibitions for swearing, might be a case in point. There might even be positive consequences in younger people for whom swearing with a peer group may serve as a bonding function and thereby facilitate emotional support.

“The answer is that we currently do not know—but we will try to find out.”

More news from the University of Arizona: http://uanews.org