The MWS Podcasts 131: Emma Byrne on the Benefits of Swearing

We are joined today by the scientist Emma Byrne. Emma normally specialises in the field of artificial intelligence, however she’s recently taken a different tack and is here to talk about her latest book entitled ‘Swearing is good for you’. Using peer reviewed science, she argues that swearing is likely to have been one of the first forms of language that we developed and that since then, it’s been helping us to deal with pain, work together, manage our emotions and improve our minds.



MWS Podcast 131: Emma Byrne as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

10 thoughts on “The MWS Podcasts 131: Emma Byrne on the Benefits of Swearing

  1. An interesting podcast, that certainly challenged some of my preconceptions on the subject – especially that use of swearing is related to inarticulacy. Emma’s emphasis was all on the acceptance of swearing, though, which I felt was rather one-sided. There was some acknowledgement at the end that it’s all about how much you swear, but the general assumption seemed to be that people are too disapproving of swearing. I’m not sure that’s the case, and it seems to me that on the contrary people are often too accepting of swearing, and particularly that they rely on it too much as a quick way of binding a group.

    Obviously, unlike Emma, I haven’t researched this, but my experience is very much that swearing very often accompanies absolutisation. If you tell someone to ‘fuck off’, for example, in most cases (except when its clearly jocular among good friends) that means that you’re reducing them to an object, and trying to find a shortcut to wishing them out of existence, rather than acknowledging them in their complexity and humanity. I can see why, as Emma suggests, that may have evolved as a way of avoiding violence, and is better than violence. Better still, though, is surely engaging with the issue that caused you anger, rather than trying to dismiss it? I’m not convinced that indulgence in swearing doesn’t accentuate anger in such cases, even if it’s yourself, or an inanimate object, that you’re swearing at.

    So, whilst not wanting to be repressive or puritanical about swearing, I’m still inclined to think that on the whole it’s morally to be avoided. Many people’s use of swearing seems simply harsh, and that harshness is a habit of falling back on absolutizing shortcuts rather than being aware of what’s going on. I would have liked more acknowledgement of this point.

    1. Hi Robert
      I agree that any form of language, including swearing, that absolutizes someone is inappropriate, especially if it’s aggressive and as you say maybe Emma Byrne could have acknowledged this more in the talk. However, after all the other benefits Emma highlights about swearing, I can’t help thinking it was a bit sweeping of you to say “on the whole” swearing is to be morally avoided. I’m a fairly regular swearer and I hardly ever use it absolutely or aggressively and I would say that’s the case for most of the people I’ve tended to socialize with throughout my life. In this sense, my experience is quite different to yours. Language that strikes me as harsh is generally when it conveys distance and formality whereas swearing for me is very much related to what’s in going with people emotionally and I usually find it very warm, earthy, direct and connective. As you know, I’ve lived for extensive periods in several different countries and I think I can say with confidence that the ‘swearier’ the culture, the greater the warmth of the people. Perhaps related to this is what she said in the interview about swearing tending to be very much associated with the right hemisphere. I think there is indeed a case for using swearing sparingly, which Emma as you say argues for at the end, but a world without it would for me be an emotionally impoverished one.

      1. Just a further reflection on brain lateralization and swearing – in term of integration, my understanding is that you suggest (along with Iain McGilchrist) that the right hemisphere is already integrated and we employ the right hemisphere to help the left hemisphere become integrated. According to the research Emma highlights in her book, if our RH gets knocked about by lesion or stroke we simply stop swearing (and incidentally stop getting humour), suggesting that swearing is very much a right hemisphere tendency. How can that be squared with the whole idea of integration? Are there other RH dispositions that you think are to be morally avoided?

  2. Hi Barry,
    It seems to me that we’re probably talking about different paradigm cases of swearing. The typical case I have in mind is aggressive swearing at someone else, but we seem to be agreed that that’s generally to be avoided. Because that’s a case of anger, which McGilchrist gives as the only left hemisphere emotion, I’d suggest that’s very LH based, which would fit with its instrumentality, depersonalising etc.

    At the other end of the spectrum there might involuntary or near-involuntary expressions of surprise, pretty similar to a flinch response but just taking a culturally-influenced linguistic form. For example, when my car was standing in a motorway queue a little while ago, and a van piled into the back of my car, I think a ‘shit!’ or something similar escaped my lips. After that, though, I’m glad to say that I was pretty calm, as swearing at the van driver wouldn’t have helped anyone. I’d guess we also agree that there’s no real moral problem with that kind of swearing – apart from anything else, it’s very difficult to change. I can also believe that that’s right hemisphere based, because it’s such an immediate response to new stimuli and gives us access to new emotions. I think there also of the episode in the film ‘The King’s Speech’, where King George VI is able to overcome his stammer immediately when he’s swearing or singing.

    But the debatable examples of swearing must lie somewhere in between these. One in-between example you mentioned in the podcast is you putting swearwords in between other words when you were in the navy. You also seemed to agree with Emma that this was an example of social conformity. Where we might disagree is on our moral view of that social conformity. To me that seems to be an example of the power of the group at work, and I’d assume that you were probably motivated by a loop of fear of exclusion linked to LH based beliefs about the acceptable ways to speak in that group (Is that how it felt?). I have difficulty in seeing how that’s an expression of the right hemisphere – but I’m open to further evidence. There’s a tricky boundary line to find between social solidarity and group power, and I’d guess that in the podcast you and Emma were thinking of this kind of swearing as an expression of social solidarity rather than group power. But for me, social solidarity would need to be accompanied by a bit more awareness and respect for individuals. And when groups start to develop this kind of awareness and respect, strangely enough, swearing disappears!

  3. Another way of thinking about this could be in terms of purity or sacredness. The sacred reflects some of our experience of the integrated, but it’s also subject to a lot of absolutisation where people turn it into a set of beliefs that define a group. Exactly the same can be said about swearing, because swearing is desecration. Swearing could put us in touch with more integrated experience in some cases, but a lot of the time it’s negative absolutisation, that defines a group with an identity that’s negatively based on rejecting some sort of sacredness.

    1. Yes, I’m talking more about the empathic way of using swear words and as Peter Sheath said on Facebook that most of the time (for me) it does something towards enriching the moment and bringing people together. I take your point about group conformity, although I think the high frequency of swearing that I did when I was in the navy, for me was more pertinent to Emma’s point about using swearing prudently and selectively or it loses its power. I also think there’s a Middle Way to be struck with regards group conformity. Of course you need to be on your guard about group think, however, people seem to engage with other people and their ideas a lot more effectively if they feel you are speaking their language. This is one of the main insights that comes out of embodied meaning theory. If you lack the ability or desire to flexibly engage with people in various societal contexts in the language they are comfortable with, you can often fail to connect. This can be to the detriment to our own sense of inclusion and for the opportunity of a dialectic to occur. I fully acknowledge I’m somewhat of a people slut in that regard in that I’ll modify not only the language register I’m using but also the topics I’m prepared to talk about in order to make a connection with people. I think when it comes to you and me Robert, our relationship with swearing has been heavily affected by our life experience. I’m not for a second doubting that in your experience when groups start to develop awareness and respect, swearing disappears but that’s certainly not the case for me. In fact quite the opposite, as I’ve already mentioned, I find when people start swearing, it’s a sign they feel more comfortable with each other. Maybe, this has something to do with swearing being heavily connected to taboos, and by ‘breaking them’ there’s a release from a sort of collective repression. I can’t help thinking that we might also be getting in touch with our Jungian shadow when we swear, in the sense that we connect with the earthier, bestial, more embodied aspects of our selves.

      As for a sense of the sacred, I don’t see why swearing can’t be an effective channel for that either. To give you an example, as you know a few weeks ago I went trekking with Kate and several friends to Nepal. On the fourth day of the trek, there was an opportunity to climb a peak, which was just under 5,000 metres but we could have done with perhaps a bit more altitude acclimatization. It was really tough, several of the group had to drop out due to difficulties with the altitude. Anyway, three of us, along with the guides eventually got to the top. We were all absolutely exhausted. I took in the incredible view, gave a huge smile to my fellow climbers, said ‘fuck!’ and subsequently burst into tears of joy and then we all proceeded to hug each other. Now if you’d been there Robert, you might have said ‘Oh, my god’, ‘Wow’ or ‘Goodness’ or something, but it was the word ‘fuck’ that best expressed that sense of wonder, awe and achievement that I experienced and I also sensed the profound connection I made with the others when I said that. In that sense it doesn’t surprise me that swearwords are generally the first words stroke victims say, who have temporally lost the ability to speak. That word got me crying, as it connected me directly to my embodied experience and to the other people, just as those stroke victims find it the most primal way to communicate and express emotion.

  4. It’s very interesting hearing about those different experiences, and you make a good point about embodied meaning theory. A word means what it means to us, rather than only what it means in a dictionary. Thus the significance of swearing could be extremely different in different circumstances. ‘Fuck’ is certainly not the word that would spring to my lips on reaching the top of a mountain, but there’s no accounting for the visceral nature of meaning!

    1. Would you agree then that it’s not so much the actual words we use in any given situation, but far more how wisely and compassionately we use them that is the most salient ethical determiner?

  5. I would agree with that. The recognition of other people’s ways of using the same words would be an aspect of the integration of meaning. That integration of meaning has an input into the wisdom of our use.

  6. Hi Guys…

    Guess I have a somewhat of a radical or even heretical approach to the use of language…

    I have listened to quite a few who were obviously attempting to share a personal realization using whatever linguistic tools they had available, the most effective, are obviously are those who cause us to confront and deconstruct or see through the endless fixations we tend to develop in the process of interpreting our experience of the phenomenal world…. so, whatever works is what works…wisdom and compassion are not some kind of filter or map to the world of expression and communication, but whatever arises in response to the needs of those who wish to open their gifts now…
    One of my favorites is a guy named Paul Hedderman, he uses a lot of (what would be considered by many) profanity in his “talks”, but I would still like to refer to him as Saint Paul. If you feel a little short on personal realizations, you should check him out on YouTube… I suspect he manages to offend most everyone at first…

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