I Swear! Language Matters

By Jason Menard

They’re powerful words designed to provoke a reaction. For some, that reaction is shock, for others its indifference, whilst some feel revulsion. But the biggest risk with swearing is that words used for emphasis can actually diminish your overall credibility.

I recently received a comment from a reader of this blog who started off his diatribe with “You guys need to get your fucking facts straight before you put shit like this on the internet…” 

OK, you got my attention – but not necessarily in a good way.

I try not to judge comment based upon the spelling, grammar (or lack thereof), or tone. Often when someone makes a comment on a blog or article, they’re doing it from a foundation of passion. Sometimes they’re supportive, other times they’re angry. So you have to be willing to temper each comment with an understanding of where it’s coming from.

But opening a comment with such a visceral statement actually undermines the remainder of the text. Most readers will proceed with a jaundiced eye and a hyper-critical analysis of all subsequent statements. (I’ll put aside the fact that his comment was completely misplaced, misguided, and factually incorrect. He argued statements I never actually made, or which he’s pulled out of context.)

Swearing can be a dangerous tool when wielded inappropriately. Yes, I can have a sailor’s mouth at times, but only within certain communities. I’d never use certain words in a business communications context, nor would I use them in certain company. There’s a way you talk and present yourself with your friends, and a way you present yourself in public. It’s common sense; but, unfortunately, for some of today’s kids that’s not so common.

Perhaps it’s a result of the hyper-sharing mentality with which they’re growing up – a mentality that’s completely undermined by their total lack of understanding of the larger picture. It’s a battle we wage with our own 16-year-old son. He’s written things on Facebook and other social networking sites that, to the outside world, would be viewed as racist, misogynist, and just plain offensive. His argument? “It’s just between my friends. We all know it’s a joke.”

But, despite his beliefs, that joke does extend well beyond the radius of his circle of friends. Much of what’s written is in the public domain and we’ve heard multiple comments from people outside that circle who question the content.

It’s not unique to our son. This generation of teens has grown up sharing each and every moment of their lives on social networks. Some view friend acquisition as a game – soliciting and accepting so-called friends like a Spammer on uppers. The days of the rumour mill churning out a small flow within your school now has the potential to release a deluge of information on a much broader scale.

There’s no filter and no understanding of the reach of their comments. This is the environment they grow up in, so is it any wonder that they think the rules apply across the board? My commenter probably didn’t even think twice about how his choice of language would impact his credibility because this is the way he’s always presented himself.

Coincidentally, earlier this week I was watching an old George Carlin comedy special. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Carlin, although I can appreciate some of his grammatically oriented humour. In it, during an interview for the HBO special, he argued in favour of swearing, saying essentially that while he could do a set without swearing, it wouldn’t be as effective. Those so-called blue words aren’t necessary, but they’re effective in conveying a feeling.

What struck me was his admission that you tailor your speech to the audience. Swearing throughout a five-minute segment on Johnny Carson’s show wouldn’t work – you’d alienate the audience and lose out on an opportunity to attract potential new customers.

Carlin’s introspection holds a lesson that really needs to be taught again to today’s youth. Sure, swearing can be an effective way to emphasize your point – but it can just as easily completely undermine that same point.

When it comes to speech and influencing people’s perception of you, the overall theme of Carlin’s comment still holds true: Know your audience.

3 thoughts on “I Swear! Language Matters

  1. Karim Kanji

    Very timely post Jay. My son (only 5 years old) used the “eff” word a couple of days ago to show how funny he could be. Very effective. My wife ran out of the room laughing. 😉

    Hope all is well.

  2. stacibernardroth

    I tell my students (and my daughter) that there is a place and a time for everything, and that school between 7:00 and 2:00 is rarely the place and time for swearing. We also talk about how swearing all the time deprives these words of their impact. For example, if I were to swear, they would be shocked or even scared, but I couldn’t acheive that effect if I swore all the time. I also teach them Shakespearean insults so that if they were determined to call each other awful names, at least they could sound sophisticated doing it. The Shakespearean insults are surprisingly popular; even students I don’t teach come into my room to ask me for the list. 🙂

  3. Pingback: A Whole-ly Underwhelming Response | The M-Dash

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